The moral and spiritual progress of mankind comes through sacrifice. Atonement is a universal law, and the one great historic fact to which the term generally has been limited, is but a single, though supreme concrete expression of the common principle. The moral order, as it applies to humanity, provides that the best and purest lives must suffer or be sacrificed for the good of the race. The Cross is not limited to Calvary. Rather it overshadows the world. Human attention is prone to be fixed upon some unusual transaction, because the principle of which it is only a manifestation is so broad and universal, that the outward eye looks through and beyond it. This great law, so deeply rooted in the constitution of man, has had multiform articulation in all known systems of religion. Says Trumbull in his "Blood Covenant ":
"In an inscription from the Egyptian monuments, the original of which dates back to the early days of Moses, there is reference to the then ancient legend of the rebellion of mankind against the gods ; of an edict of destruction against the human race; and of a divine interposition for the rescue of the doomed people. In that legend a prominent place is given to human blood, which was mingled with the juice of mandrakes, and offered as a drink to the gods, and afterward poured out to overflow and revivify the earth. And the ancient text affirms that it was in conjunction with these events that sacrifices began in the world."
Since the time when man crossed the mystic line between animalhood and manhood — symbolized by "the Fall" in Eden, and the acquirement of a "knowledge of good and evil" — he has had some innate sense of right and wrong. Then began the first perception of a moral law. Responsibility to something or somebody higher, and a feeling of guilt as a consequence of the lack of conformity to some standard became universal. Fear of penalty was present as the result of an intuitive perception. When men chose the lower instead of the higher, it required no dogma to teach them that penalty was due. But their development was not sufficiently advanced to show them that it was both inherent and corrective, for it seemed to be imposed by some Power outside. Apparently, it was vindictive in spirit, and came from beings or gods, higher and more powerful than themselves. As these forces or deities were mysterious and unseen, superstitious dread was awakened, and their placation became of the utmost importance. The abandonment of sin, for the prevention of penalty was yet too high and distant an ideal to seem practical, so there was naturally a strong desire to propitiate or buy off the powers which threatened. Sacrifice in innumerable forms thus became universal. But low and mistaken as it was, it was a faint foreshadowing of a true sacrificial law which was not made fully intelligible before the time of Jesus. Previous to his advent, evolutionary unripeness had not permitted any general interpretation of the higher and unselfish principle of renunciation.
Various messiahs, holy men, and prophets, like Gautama Buddha and some of the Old Testament seers discerned the truer ideal of self-sacrifice, but Jesus both lived and taught it in far more definite terms. The prevailing desire was to get rid of penalty, but not by an abandonment of the offense. To give something was the first impulse. The offering must have worth, and cost the giver dearly. Added to its pecuniary value, there was real or implied mental or physical suffering, or both, in order to render it more acceptable. Among polytheistic races, where there were both good and bad deities, the good were praised and flattered, while the sacrificial offerings were made to the powers of evil. In early monotheism the same principle existed but the good and evil, or the favor and disfavor, were centered in one deity instead of being divided among several.
If the shadow of a broken law rested upon men, the lawmaker must be appeased. Oblations and immolations were thus universal, no less among the Hebrews, than with the surrounding ethnic or pagan nations. The asceticism, extreme rigor, and flagellation of the mediaeval ages were outcroppings of the same deep desire of men to set themselves right, and to gain some credit which should offset sin. Any universal sentiment which has a deep root in human nature will find expression, in some form, in every religious system. Men felt that the smoke of burnt offerings had a sweet savor in the nostrils of the Deity, and that the shedding of blood was more efficacious than precious gifts in buying off penalty. But during various periods the rites lost their vitality and became mere formalities.
The strong impulse of Abraham to take the life of his son Isaac, to please God, was superseded by a higher thought before the deed was consummated. Such an intention was just as contrary to the will of the beneficent God of love — the eternal Father — as that of the prophets of Baal, who cried aloud to their deity, and "cut themselves after their manner with knives and lances" to gain favor, as related in the book of First Kings. Both wished to please the overruling Power, and the mistaken idea of the character of God, or the gods, does not seem to have been very different.
In all ages, and under all religions, the low and humanized concept of God has been the basis of sacrificial systems. He was but a magnified man, or king, vain, passionate, cruel, and even corruptible. The story of man, as he emerges from brutehood and passes by slow degrees through superstition toward the light, might almost be summed up in the one word sacrifice. As a rite it was like an acrid and unripe fruit, but the idea was of potential purification and goodness. Truly the spiritual growth of the race comes through educational friction and tribulation. The worship, service, and almost the totality of the ancient religious systems, that of the Hebrew not excepted, consisted of a perpetual effort to court favor with a ruling Power which was only their own unlovely concept. Much of this feeling still remains, and even the Christian religion is not free from its shadow to this day.
Every people, and perhaps it is not too much to say, every soul, on the way toward an approximate knowledge of the true God, passes through a stage when God, as seen by him, must be propitiated. The reflection of human passions and conditions upon the supreme Power clothes it with an aspect where presents, suffering, and even an abject attitude are thought to be available for favor.
Perhaps the most forbidding feature of the great world-wide superstition is the idea that God is pleased and conciliated by the literal shedding of blood — innocent blood. Oh, the cruel butchery which supplied the ancient altars with their victims! Read a description of the place of sacrifice in the ancient temple! The cooing turtle dove, the gentle firstling of the flock, the goat and ram and bullock all poured out their life blood to fill the demand of this heathenish instinct. But the taking of life was not limited to animals. Even among the Hebrews, human sacrifices were not infrequent. The daughter of Jephthah, one of the leaders of Israel, a man who judged the Chosen People for six years, was a victim. That the horrid custom was probably borrowed from the Ammonites only shows its general prevalence. Moloch is the title of the divinity which the men of Judah, in the later ages of the kingdom, were wont to appease by the sacrifice of their own children. Jeremiah and Ezekiel make frequent and bitter reference to the "high places" for the sacrifice of children by their parents. Such a place was built beneath the very walls of the temple at Jerusalem on the slope of the gloomy valley of Hinnon, or Tophet. Though these offerings were devoted to Moloch, the cruel ritual was so closely associated with Jehovah worship that Jeremiah repeatedly found it necessary to protest that it was not of Jehovah's institution. Even among the intellectual Athenians, there was an annual human sacrifice. A man and a woman were hurled from the brink of the Acropolis, as sin bearers. The Romans threw their victims from the Tarpeian Rock. But illustrations need not be multiplied of a barbarous rite which for ages was like a pall over the most righteous nations of the ancient time.
The universality of a superstitious fear of an unseen and uninterpreted Absolute, with an intuitive sense of inward demerit, naturally found its climax in an unworthy view of the Atonement made by Jesus. That the God of all love, whose children we are, and in whose likeness we are made, could have satisfaction in the shedding of innocent blood, would be revolting to us, had it not been enshrined and poetized in sacred rhetoric, hymn, dogma, and religious association. During the earthly ministry of Jesus, and for a long time before and after, the world was full of slaves and captives. Generally they were prisoners who had been taken in war, or persons condemned for crime or debt. Often they were set at liberty through the payment of a sum of money which was called a ransom, and the act was one of redemption. As men are, and were the slaves of sin, and as they could become free through being ransomed by the higher, or Christ life, the common fact became a natural figure or correspondence. But it was a redemption from evil, and not from the anger of God. Repentance and the abandonment of wrongdoing frees men from bondage to their lower selves, but there is no bondage which is of God. So long as evil was commonly personified, it was a captivity to the Devil.
Only through perversion, or a misleading literalism, does the Bible seem to teach that Jesus was punished for the guilt of man, or in man's place. If a legal debt due from man to God were paid by the death of Jesus, there would be no place for the divine forgiveness or love. The cold, formal, and technical view of the Atonement — now happily passing — has long burdened the Church and the world. It is foreign to the beneficent principle in its unperverted integrity. The exact term was at-one-ment, and it meant full reconciliation. The change implied was on the human and not the divine side. While the detached "letter" seems to express a divine satisfaction through a purchase, by the shedding of physical blood, Jesus taught no such dishonoring doctrine; neither was it literally held by the Primitive Church nor for some time later. It is evident that if redemption and salvation are conditioned upon his death, he could not have brought them to light during his life and ministry, nor could they have been made known at any time previous. His mission was not to appease the Father, but to express and demonstrate him in the flesh. This was necessary because the consciousness of undeveloped man is material. Spiritual lessons must be brought down to his own level, and illustrated.
It is interesting to note how a perverted view of the Atonement grew up. As the Church under Constantine became identified with the State, and lost its pristine spiritual power and beauty, the quality of hard Roman legalism was dominant. God became a distant and unfamiliar "dread Sovereign." The slavish fear with which the surrounding nations regarded their deities was measurably absorbed and it displaced the earlier apostolic and more distinctively Greek ideal of the indwelling God. From a formal, austere, and unlovable Deity men demand some shield. They cry out for something to interpose between their own repulsive concept of God and themselves. Nothing could be more natural than such a demand. They were told that they must love God, but it was morally impossible. Rather they would shrink from him and demand that his face be hidden. Hence the dogma of an interposition. "God is love." Love warms and spontaneously attracts and brings at-one-ment. Did Jesus or anything else need to interpose between Love and love? It is not the true God, but a God made by their own imagination that men want to be delivered from. Rightly interpreted, blood symbolizes the inmost quality, not the death but the life. The blood of a race, a dynasty, or a family signifies the strain, the hereditary character. Nothing should hide God.
Except through a misleading literalism, the Bible does not teach that Jesus was punished as a substitute for man, nor that the wrath of God was visited upon him in our place. But, as before intimated, when he came sacrifice covered the whole religious horizon of the Hebrew nation. As a rite it was perpetual, and the blood of slaughtered animals ran in streams from the great altar, and the smoke of burnt offerings was thick in the temple. Men did not know how to worship without the altar and its victim. When Christianity superseded Judaism, what more natural than that the idea of sacrifice should continue in some form. The best of everything was to be offered. Though a purer and better thought existed among a few in Israel, in general the idea of victims in the old religion was transferred to a great victim for the new. He was the typical lamb and he the perpetual passover.
But Jesus was not slain by God, nor by friends, but by enemies out of hatred. His murderers had no idea of worship through their criminal act. All the true sacrificial quality was spiritual and typical and resulted from a devotion to the truth, and was a lesson in human service.
When a potentate of the East was feared by his subjects, or even by his enemies, or when he was offended, gifts were presented to pacify him. To the common people of Israel, Jehovah was much like a greater Monarch, and in their view of his character efforts toward appeasement were perfectly logical. The real work of the "Son of Man" was to bring the soul into contact with God and such is the present Christian ideal. All formal sacrifices, as a rite, are survivals from paganism.
The death of Jesus was not unique in kind. He was a martyr of unexampled divinity and dignity, but only one among untold thousands who have given their lives for the truth. The true Atonement was the supreme expression of love for humanity. In the attempt to take the terms, "redemption" and "ransom" in a literal and physical sense, there was a theory extant for several centuries in the Christian Catholic Church, that the ransom which was paid by the Crucifixion was given to the Devil because he was the enemy who holds sinners captive. The claims of Satan had to be met and a fair equivalent paid for freedom. This exactly corresponded to the prevailing custom of ransom which was given to Oriental despots for the liberation of slaves. Just debts must be discharged, for sinners had virtually sold themselves to the arch-enemy of mankind. Such a dogma, which for so long a time was orthodox, demonstrates the terrible bondage which comes from a concept of the letter as the reality.
God is eternally reconciled to man, and this gospel, or good news, was the fundamental message of Jesus. Only a few highly developed souls believed it before that time, and the conviction is yet by no means universal. As men had to buy the favor of the despotic and selfish earthly monarch, so they thought it necessary to win the favor of the heavenly Father. Dr. James Freeman Clarke called this "the warlike view of the Atonement." This was succeeded by one based upon the rigid rules of Roman jurisprudence, and this has been termed the legal theory of the Atonement. Hugo Grotius proclaimed still another hypothesis, which has been termed the governmental theory of the Atonement. In effect, it was that God punished human sin through the death of Jesus as a necessary warning against future sin. The Crucifixion was therefore required on account of its deterrent influence as a moral regulation.
It has even been maintained that the total guilt of the race was so concentrated and intensified that "Jesus bore it all." What fear and woe have been brought into human life by hard and repulsive dogmas like these! The true "expiation" for sin consists in putting it away. There may be voluntary vicarious suffering, but not involuntary vicarious punishment where it is not due. The moral order is not arbitrary but reasonable and just. Transgression provides for its own punishment through inherent sequence and this is not vindictive but remedial. Such results turn men away from sin and are therefore truly beneficent in their operation. The utility, and even goodness of those human experiences which are seemingly unpleasant, is aptly expressed by Browning:
"Then welcome each rebuff That turns earth's smoothness rough, Each sting that bids nor sit nor stand, but go 1 Be our joys three-parts pain! Strive, and hold cheap the strain; Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe!"
The great controversy which raged so long between the advocates of "a limited Atonement," and one which was general has well-nigh ceased. Whatever the differing opinions as to the quality of the work of Jesus, few, at present, question its general availability. It is unwise and uncalled for to revive any old controversy which is virtually settled. Almost the same might be said about the substitutionary theory, so far as actual current thought is concerned, but the official statements of the dogma still stand and thereby challenge honest criticism. If the "confessions" of a Church are not to be taken as authoritative, who shall define its position? Says the Westminster Confession, which for so long has been a standard: "The Lord Jesus by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father, and hath purchased reconciliation and entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven for all whom his Father hath given him." The great Roman and Greek churches state the dogma yet more strongly. Behold how rapidly such unworthy ideals of God are vanishing! But for psychological reasons the concentrated imagination of ages cannot be dissolved in a moment. Spiritual evolution is not true to its name unless it be gradual.
In the past, theological speculation has often interpreted the cruel sacrificial rites of ancient Israel as foreshadowings, or perhaps of shadows thrown backward of the great sacrifice on Calvary. But there is no proof of any such relation, and their moral unlikeness is pronounced. The change was rather a great step in the upward march of humanity. The whole system of placation through gifts, bribes, and blood was one in common with heathenish ideas and practices. It did not originate with Moses, and he put limits upon the common tendency so far as was practicable. It was discountenanced by the long line of Hebrew prophets which came after him. But for several centuries before the advent of Jesus it was very prevalent and the moral decline in Judaism was marked. Religion became a hollow shell and righteousness an empty ceremony. The "Son of Man" condemned such formalism in the strongest terms. In modern times the dogma of the divine appeasement which has occupied such a prominent place in the Christian system has been a great obstacle to spiritual progress.
Punishment, as the sequence of guilt, is not bought or sold, and in the nature of the case is not commercially transferable. The sacrifices which lie in the pathway of a noble and unselfish life are not made by bargain or legal technicality. The martyrs of all ages have endured their trials because of their love of truth, principle, and righteousness. There was nothing in them of official obligation or imposition. There was always a dear object that was supreme which well-nigh transformed their pain into pleasure. Often they passed out of the body singing hymns of praise and rejoicing. But how different the victims which have been forced, and with the innocent animals whose blood has been poured out because it was thought that it pleased God! Said the divine perception of Isaiah, the greatest of Hebrew prophets: "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; new moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies — I cannot away with iniquity and the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them." The "word of the Lord" through Isaiah bears the stamp of greater purity and a higher inspiration than that of a majority of the early writers of Holy Writ.
It is plain that Jesus did not regard himself as a propitiatory sacrifice or a divine credit for debt. He was rather the Bread of Life, the great Healer, the Door, or the Vine. But there are two or three passages which seem to carry the sacrificial idea, the most significant one of which, is: "And as they were eating, he took bread, and when he had blessed, he brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take ye: this is my body. And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the covenant, which is shed for many." (Mark xiv, 22-24) This is so out of harmony with his general teaching, that if taken literally, it would seem to be a subsequent interpolation. Any single passage of Scripture should be interpreted, not only in the light of the context, but of the general tenor and spirit of the subject as a whole. The letter of the passage forms the basis for the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation, or it may suggest ideas yet more abnormal. But if its genuineness be unquestioned, in accord with the usages of Oriental imagery, it would signify that the flesh and blood, as symbolic of inmost moral quality, would remit or put away sin. The riddance of sin depends upon a likeness in character to that of Jesus.
Regarding the various statements of St. Paul, which seem to bear the stamp of the propitiatory principle, it should not be forgotten that though he is called the Apostle to the Gentiles he was "a Hebrew of Hebrews," and that he endeavored to adapt the gospel to Jewish ideas and to win his countrymen. He was the product of, and steeped in, racial thought. Figures and symbols were carried over and made serviceable, so far as possible, in the enforcement of the reformed religion. Sacrifice and offering for centuries had been stratified in Jewish thought, and much would survive the transition. The great ceremonial of their religion could not immediately vanish, and, at the least, sought some invisible correspondence.
But Christianity has lived and will survive as an inner life, even though its technical theology be somewhat colored by pagan ideas. There is a true sacrificial philosophy, vitalized by love and unselfishness, in the sublime non-resistance which Jesus taught in plain terms. The world is full of voluntary self-sacrifice. But it is transformed by the beauty of its mission and becomes joyous instead of grievous. The greatest gift or tribute which can be presented to God or man is service, something of one's own self. The sacrifices made by devotion to paternal, filial, and other relations of wider range, become privileges and blessings. They are not legal purchases, or destructive in their working, for they conserve life and character. And now the supreme problem in the beneficent moral order which at first seems insoluble, is the universal mystic principle by which the innocent suffer, for, in, and with the guilty. The wife suffers for the sins of the husband, and the friend for those of the friend. The innocent members of the community suffer for its collective transgressions, and so through all the relations of complex life. Even nations suffer for each other's wrong-doing, in which they have no part. How can such a fundamental and universal principle be reconciled with the goodness of God? Only from the deeper and truer standpoint of racial solidarity. If each one suffered only and exactly for his own misdeeds, it might at first sight seem more just, but it would promote selfishness. His motive for obedience soon would become narrowed to his own personality. He would care little for the course of others, provided his own conduct were correct. But his peculiar interests are really bound up in a great bundle, and that must be covered by his care. Whether we will or not, we are our "brother's keeper." Nothing less than this law of interchange and inclusion could educate us to human unity. The affairs of all are woven into one web, and cannot be disentangled. No man can afford to disregard the principle of vicarious love, and service, for its multiform lines cross each other like a net-work. Nothing less powerful and ubiquitous could ever stem the tide of selfishness. But comparatively few yet fully realize the tremendous sweep of this divine ordinance.
But true self-sacrifice is not the blotting out of self; rather it consists of making the most of the individual. If there is to be bestowment, it should be rich and vital. A true self-love is not selfishness, and it is entirely consonant with love for others. Such an affection is only the overflow of the growing stock which is in store. Not only is the world helped by doing, but also by being. Every man should make the most of himself because he is the means, as well as the end. The rounded moral and spiritual character of every man swells the intrinsic assets of the human world.