In February 2009, The Christian Century featured Daniel Bell’s article, “God Does Not Require Blood” on their cover. The imagery found there was as evocative as the title, showing two band-aids placed in the form of a cross. The article itself was adapted from a chapter of the same name in God Does Not…, a 2008 resource published by Brazos Press challenging not only the demand for blood, but also conceptions of God as matchmaker, entertainer, cure-all, or as one in a hurry.
Bell’s article begins with an accurate statement concerning the Christian aversion to blood sacrifice. Christians have not killed animals, or their firstborn, in worship of God, and have found such forms of sacrifice abhorrent and unnecessary. But despite the rejection of blood sacrifice as a Christian practice, Bell declares, the logic of blood sacrifice significantly influences first how Christians think about God, and then subsequently how they act. Herein lies Bell’s concern.
Bell knows that we live in a violent culture, and he is deeply concerned that Christians, far too often, have allowed the notion of redemptive violence inherent in “the logic of blood sacrifice” to reinforce and perpetuate such violence. As examples of where such logic fails, he points to any Christian defense of capital punishment, Martin Luther’s encouragement to peasants to “endure their affliction” and remain in their station, and pastoral counseling to battered spouses advising them to remain in those relationships. As far as the theological implications for such forms of redemptive violence, Bell states quite plainly, “All of this is wrong. God does not demand or require blood to redeem us. God neither inflicts violence nor desires suffering in order to set the divine-human relation right. In spite of its pervasiveness in Christian imagery, the cost of communion, or reconciliation and redemption, is not blood and suffering.”
Bell further illustrates redemptive violence as the concept underpinning our national response to September 11, 2001 as well as the basic plot lines of most television action dramas, in which bad guys commit violence only to be overtaken by good guys who commit “good” violence. He notes government initiatives to wage war on drugs, disease, or obesity, and how most popular video games “revolve around apocalyptic levels of violence” as further evidence of our deeply ingrained propensity to seek blood.
But redemptive violence is not the only problem for Bell. On the flip side of the same coin, Bell names redemptive suffering and the associations made with Christian life and practice as equally troublesome. Bell is concerned for those that might suffer unjustly. As one example, Bell recalls how Martin Luther King, Jr. was urged to forestall his work by a group of white clergy, and thus prolong the suffering of both he and the African-American people. He would not wait and suffer redemptively. King understood that the time demanded action. In response, those clergymen received the now famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
From here Bell turns to the cross and the atonement. He asks, “Wasn’t this the supreme act of redemptive violence? Isn’t it the case that in spite of our visceral reaction against blood sacrifice, Christ was the ultimate blood sacrifice?” Here, of course, we meet Anselm, the medieval theologian charged with most clearly articulating the substitutionary or satisfaction theory of the atonement. Bell also introduces the governmental theory of atonement to cite an second example where Christ’s death on the cross satisfies the payment for either our individual sins or our corporate transgressions “in order to uphold the integrity of the moral order of the universe.”
It is at this point that Bell wrestles with the choice many have faced in wrestling with these dimensions of the atonement within classical Christian theology. He acknowledges that some, in their desire to reject the notion of a God who demands blood, have also had to reject the cross. He notes that this leads to a rejection of the cross as redemptive or central to God’s redemption, an appeal to the love of God that renders a focus on sacrifice an error, or declaring Christ’s death on the cross as some form of divine child abuse. After recognizing these pathways, Bell surprises the reader by refusing to accept them. He says, “I believe any effort to make the case that God does not demand blood cannot simply skip over the cross but must pass right through it.”
I believe that Christ’s work of atonement, when rightly understood, demands the rejection of blood sacrifice and the logic of redemptive violence. Christ’s work on the cross is not about satisfying a divine demand for blood, but about showing us that God does not demand blood. Christ’s work on the cross is the divine refusal of blood sacrifice, as well as any notion that suffering violence is or can be redemptive.
Bell goes on further to say that “This love of God expressed in Jesus saves us. It is the love that would rather die on the cross than give up on us.” As we are joined to Christ, we then are “transformed (sanctified) and live our lives according to another logic.” We love our enemies, forgive, and renounce violence. In the process we may suffer, but only “because suffering is the cost that humans in their sinful rebellion impose on other humans.” Bell rejects the notion that such suffering could in itself be redemptive. It is simply a consequence of living in the world.
Bell’s account is interesting, for it is challenging. But it does not seem right. The terms do not seem correct, as the idea that God “does not demand blood” counters an equally opposing idea that “God does demand blood.”
I have listened to enough preachers (particularly Reformed and neo-Calvinist voices) whose rhetoric from the pulpit gives this impression, so I do see where such an idea might come from. And I believe Bell does support his claim by examining governmental and substitutionary examinations of the atonement. But as I consider the story of Christianity and Judaism found in the New and Old Testaments, to designate God as one who “demands” or “not demands” blood seems wrongheaded. The term “demand” appears to be misplaced.
I will state first that the commandments as they were given to Israel were regarded as gift and responsibility, not burden or obligation. Israel was given “teaching” or “instruction” to offer sacrifices to their God, and that practice included the shedding of the blood of animals. Any reading of the Old Testament account would find that sacrifice was not regarded as meeting the demands of a blood thirsty God, but was rather a way of remembering those narratives that were foundational for the constitution of a people called Israel. Through sacrifice, the people of Israel are reminded of God’s holiness, otherness, and purity. As God is somehow distinct from his people, the people of Israel are to be distinct from the nations. In a sense, Bell is right in saying that God does not “demand” blood, but this does not mean that the shedding of blood does not have a place in telling the story of God.
When we turn to the New Testament, Bell’s account of Christ’s shedding of blood seems insufficient. Stated plainly, it is missing the eschatological claim that in the cross God put violence to death and constituted a people called to be God’s peace. While in the Old Testament the people of Israel may have met their responsibility in their worship of God through the practice of blood sacrifice, in the New Testament we see God taking the sins of the world upon himself in the person of Jesus Christ, suffering crucifixion, and in the process declaring an end to violence. In Christ’s death, we do not see Jesus of Nazareth meeting a demand for blood, but rather declaring victory over the powers through the gift of his obedience. In the New Testament as well as the Old, the language of “demand” does not fit the narrative.
Of course, who am I to question a professional theologian? My own understanding of the atonement needs strengthening. I have found the approach taken by Scot McKnight in A Community Called Atonement more helpful, as McKnight argues that the various theories are all necessary for a robust understanding of what happened in the cross. Bell’s effort to dismiss substitution or governmental theories of atonement in favor of what appears to be a moral influence approach, in my opinion, fails because it is undertaken on the wrong terms, does not adequately fit the biblical narrative, and lacks the eschatological dimension necessary for any account of atonement.
Thinking about the atonement is important, and Bell’s concern that accounts of Christ’s death that depict God as a blood thirsty tyrant can have negative repercussions for how Christians think and act is valid. We would do well to heed his warnings, but must move beyond his account, I believe, if we are to speak of the atonement in a robust manner, a manner which includes regarding Christ’s death as a sacrifice which does away with our sin, justifies us before God’s throne, and inspires us to greater acts of love and sacrifice. Such a vision is possible, and, I believe, indicative of Christ’s blood flowing through the heart of his body, the Church.