THE ATONEMENT AND HUMAN SACRIFICE
DAVID R. DILLING
Many trusting hearts have paused to ponder the weighty words of Genesis 22:2, "Take
now thy son . . .and offer him for a burnt-offering." This text prompted Soren Kierkegaard
to ask, "Is there such a thing as a teleological suspension of the ethical?" Most serious
readers of Genesis 22 have doubtless shared the concern which promoted Kierkegaard's en-
The problem with which we are here concerned regards the interpretation of the phrase,
"And offer him there for a burnt-offering." Did this mean that Abraham was actually to kill
and cremate his own son? If so, how can Yahweh (Jehovah) be justified for making such a
command? Are not such sacrifices prohibited? Is not the very idea abhorrent, and does not
the very suggestion offend our moral sensitivity? Or was Abraham merely commanded to
wholly dedicate his son to Yahweh? In this case, why is the expression 'olah used, and how
can God be vindicated for allowing Abraham so grossly to misinterpret His will? In either
case there is a theodicy--the problem of reconciling the divine command with the otherwise
known divine nature and purpose.
There is, to be sure, an awesome aspect to the stern, succinct narrative regarding the
sacrifice of Isaac. Unfortunately, many readers have been overawed. The present study is
not slanted to the liberal theologian, but to the otherwise conservative interpreter who
through his awe at the sacrifice of Isaac has prepared himself for major hermeneutical and
The severity of Abraham's test and hence the significance of the problem of this study
was greatly multiplied by the soteriological implications of his action. The promise of sal-
vation and blessing was to come through Isaac. This was clear enough to Abraham. But if
to him, how much more is that clear to us who have the full revelation concerning that seed
through whom all nations will be blessed, even Jesus. The Divine Providence seems to de-
light in manifesting the glory and power of God in such incidents where the hope for the ful-
fillment of the Messianic promise hangs by the finest thread--and that about to be cut off. As
in the day that Cain killed Abel; as in the day that Athaliah destroyed all the seed royal save
Joash; as in the day that Haman devised his wicked plot against the kin of Mordecai; and as in the day that Herod sought the life of Messiah Himself; so it seemed on this occasion, Abraham was commanded not only to sacrifice his beloved son, "but to cut in pieces, or cast into the
fire, the charter of his salvation, and to have nothing left for himself, but death and hell."1
Two problems bearing on the sacrifice of Isaac demand attention before the nature of that
sacrifice can rightly be evaluated. These are the relation of Abraham to the rite of human
sacrifice and the attitude of Yahweh toward the same.
THE PRACTICE OF HUMAN SACRIFICE
The sacrifice of Isaac has traditionally been related in one way or another to the practice
of human sacrifice. It is supposed that such sacrifices were prevalent in Abraham's day. It
is urged on the one hand that Abraham's offering was qualitatively identical to that of his
pagan ancestors and neighbors. Others maintain that the experience of Abraham is unique,
and should be compared only with the sacrificial death of Christ, to which it bears a typical
In the early stages of modem archaeological discovery, generalizations regarding
practices such as human sacrifice were sometimes made with too great haste. Time has
tempered the judgment of authorities, but the evidence that such sacrifices were actually
out remains intact. In
a published Babylonian cylinder seal which unmistakably portrays the actual execution of a
human sacrifice.2 A.H. Sayce, British Assyriologist of a generation ago, has called atten-
tion to an Akkadian poem of pre-Semitic times with its later Assyrian translation concerning
the sacrifice of a firstborn son. It says distinctly, "His offspring for his life he gave."3
evidence that human sacrifice was known in
II Ki. , ". . .And the Sepharvites burnt their children in the fire to Adrammelech and
Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim." Among the Canaanites, the silence of the Ugaritic
texts with respect to human sacrifice4 has confirmed the opinion of Prof. Albright that human
sacrifice, though well known, "does not seem to have been practiced quite so frequently as
used to be thought."5 Among the Hebrews, it must be conceded that human sacrifice was
never an established or recognized part of the Jewish religion. The sacrifice of Jephthah's
daughter, for example, will admit of interpretation other than that of a true human sacrifice.
Although rejecting the idea that human sacrifice was ever a legitimate or recognized element
the religion of
tion in times of religious declension and national apostasy. Biblical references to such sac-
rifices uniformly relate them to the worship of the deity Molech.
We conclude therefore that Abraham probably had some knowledge and experience with
human sacrifice. It appears, though, that such knowledge was more limited than was sup-
posed in previous generations. On the other hand, we deny on the basis of Levitical legis-
lation that Yahweh ever demanded human sacrifice as a general practice for the nation of
ledged that his experience is unique in Old Testament history.6
YAHWEH AND HUMAN SACRIFICE
It is generally assumed that the Old Testament categorically prohibits the rite of human
sacrifice. To be sure, the Mosaic Law contains certain prohibitions in this regard.7 How-
ever, a thorough examination of these prohibitions sheds significant light on the problem of
the sacrifice of Isaac. For example, (1) The legal prohibitions, as well as the prophetic
polemics,8 are uniformly related to heathen deities. In the passages cited, human sacrifice
occurs almost incidentally amid lists of abominations rendered in connection with idolatrous
worship. (2) The greater offense is not the sacrifice, but the idolatry involved in offering
such a sacrifice to a god other than Yahweh. The first commandment is not, "Thou shalt not
offer human sacrifices, "but, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."9 (3) The Bible
contains no prohibitions of human sacrifice to Yahweh. The only possible exception to this
principle is the legislation regarding the redemption of the first-born sons in Ex. 13:1-16.
This passage, however, does not condemn human sacrifice. On the contrary, it proves that
had a very definite claim on all the first-born of
26 GRACE JOURNAL
The Grace of God in the Redemption of First-Born Sons
Following the judgment on the first-born in
the passover, Yahweh demanded that all the first-born in
13:1).10 The clean beasts were to be sacrificed, the unclean were to be redeemed with a
lamb or killed, and the first-born of men were to be redeemed. This passage, taken at face
value, must mean that Yahweh had a claim on the first-born which would have involved their
death, save for His gracious provision for their redemption. Theories of interpretation
which refuse to admit this minimize the sovereignty of God and the sinfulness of man. When
one rightly appreciates that his very existence and his continuation in existence are dependent
upon the grace of God ("It is of Jehovah's loving kindness that we are not consumed," Lam.
), then the demand of God upon the life of any particular individual will pose no problem.
Prof. Sayce, although he insists that, "Abraham, in accordance with the fierce ritual of
that Yahweh had a claim on the first-born sons of
it was of His own free-will that he waived the claim."12 It is not surprising that expositors
generally have failed to see this point since they have rejected the more ultimate thesis that
human sacrifice per se is an amoral act. We contend, on the other hand, that no act is in-
herently moral or immoral except as it impinges on the revealed will of God. Therefore,
any argument against human sacrifice which begins with the premise that God could not re-
quire such a sacrifice errs in beginning from a false premise. Since the sin of Adam, it is
only by the grace of God that any man has been permitted to live. Therefore, a fortiori, it is
only by the grace of God that any particular individual or group is spared.13
Sacrifice or Obedience
The most frequent objection raised against the Biblical presentation of Yahweh and His
relationship to sacrifice is that sacrifice, whether of human beings or of beasts, is an ele-
ment of primitive religion, and that Yahweh really desires not sacrifice at all but obedience.
Those who argue this way support their claims with such texts as Genesis 22, urging that the
outcome of the Abraham/Isaac incident proves that Yahweh was really interested in the obed-
ience of Abraham and not the sacrifice of Isaac. Another text, frequently used is I Sam.
And Samuel said, Hath Jehovah as great delight in burnt-offerings and
sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of Jehovah? Behold, to obey is better than
sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.14
The spirit of the objection is evident in the opinion of Marcus Dods with respect to the
sacrifice of Isaac:
God meant Abraham to make the sacrifice in spirit, not in the outward act;
he meant to write deeply on the Jewish mind the fundamental lesson regarding
sacrifice, that it is in the spirit and will that all true sacrifice is made. . .The
sacrifice God seeks is the devotion of the living soul, not the consumption of a
THE ATONEMENT AND HUMAN SACRIFICE 27
This view, carried to its logical conclusion, would eliminate the necessity of the sacri-
ficial death of Christ. This in turn eliminates the atonement and thereby abnegates the whole
Christian gospel. A few commentators have seen this and candidly admitted to the conse-
quence. Lange, for example, after drawing the distinction of two kinds of sacrifice, namely,
the spiritual consecration of a man as a sacrifice, and the visible slaughter of an animal,
argues that the latter is only symbolical and typical of the former. He concludes:
In the crucifixion, these two sacrifices outwardly come together, while
really and spiritually they are separated as widely as heaven and hell. Christ
yields himself in perfect obedience to the will of the Father, in the judgment of
the world. That is the fulfilling of the Israelitish sacrifice. Caiaphas will
suffer the innocent to die for the good of the people John xi. 50), and even
Pilate yields him to the will of men (Luke xxiii. 25); this is the completion of
To assert that the death of Christ was only Pilate's idea is certainly far afield from Paul-
ine theology which says:
. . .While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of
his Son. . . (Rom. ).
. . .in whom we have redemption through his blood (Eph. 1:7).
. . .Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a
sacrifice to God for an odor of sweet smell (Eph. 5:2).
The view that sacrifice is subordinate to obedience stems from two diametrically opposed
points of view. Those who take the Bible seriously and regard it as indeed the written revel-
ation of God tend to minimize the importance of Old Testament sacrifices on the basis of New
Testament theology. The New Testament regards those sacrifices made under the old dis-
pensation as subordinate and inferior to the sacrifice of Christ--"For if that first covenant
had been faultless, then would no place have been sought for a second" (Heb. 8:7). They are
regarded as typical or symbolic--"For the law having a shadow of the good things to come,
not the very image of the things, can never with the same sacrifices year by year, which they
offer continually, make perfect them that draw nigh" (Heb. 10:4). On the other hand, those
who do not treat the Bible with such "wooden-headed literalism" deny that God ever wanted or
demanded sacrifices at all. The institution of sacrifice is a primitive, savage rite that was
merely tolerated for a season until more advanced revelation could be received.
The latter position we reject on the grounds of our presupposition that the Holy Scriptures
an inspired and inerrant revelation, and the corollary that the religion of
fore essentially revealed rather than evolved. However, even apart from this premise, it is
quite possible to establish with a relatively high degree of certitude that the origin of sacri-
fice must be accounted for on the basis of divine revelation. Hobart Freeman has pointed out
28 GRACE JOURNAL
The universal prevalence of the practice of vicarious and piacular sacri-
fice. . .cannot be reasonably explained apart from the idea that it was derived
from a common and authoritative source.17
He has also examined the only alternative explanations, namely, that the practice of sac-
rifice arose from (1) some dictate of reason; (2) some demand of nature; or (3) some prin-
ciple of interest, and found them wholly inadequate.18
The other position, that the Old Testament sacrifices were not so important after all, is
quite as serious as the liberal view, for in attempting to exalt the significance of the death of
Christ, it actually has the opposite effect of undermining the basis thereof. This view also
minimizes the Old Testament teaching that for the individual under the old covenant the Lev-
itical sacrifices were the only possible means of atonement for sin and the only means through
which Yahweh chose to be propitiated. Although He expected that the offerer would bring the
appointed sacrifice in an attitude of repentance and faith, it by no means follows that a proper
"heart-attitude" without the appropriate form would be acceptable to Yahweh.19
The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ
Having cleared away certain relatively superficial matters we come now to the crux of the
whole issue. The crucial question related to the proposed sacrifice of Isaac is this: In the
death of Christ, did God actually demand the sacrifice of an innocent human being as a substi-
tutionary sacrifice for others, thereby atoning for their sins and propitiating the wrath of a
holy God against them? The dilemma which this question poses for the interpreter is: If
answered affirmatively, then there is no a priori ground for denying that God could have
demanded the actual slaying of Isaac as a sacrifice. Indeed, if God could demand the death
of his own Son as a substitutionary sacrifice, then there is more ground for expecting Him to
demand the sacrifice of other human beings than for denying the same. On the other hand, if
one answers negatively, then the whole basis for Christian salvation is destroyed.
Biblical Representation of the Atonement
Scholastic theologians established the proposition that our knowledge of God and spiritual
realities is neither univocal nor equivocal but analogical. As such our understanding of great
spiritual truths is related to a variety of figures. This is especially true of the death of
Christ. Historically, theologians have erred through an unbalanced emphasis of one of the
figures, excluding or minimizing the others. It is therefore important to know just what the
Bible does teach, and to have a balanced picture of that teaching.
The death of Christ and its significance is the very center of the Biblical message. Texts
cited here are only a representative sample of the Biblical teaching. The death of Christ is
For our passover also hath been sacrificed, even Christ (I Cor. 5:7).
THE ATONEMENT AND HUMAN SACRIFICE 29
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling
them that have been defiled, sanctify unto the cleanness of the flesh: how much
more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself
without blemish unto God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve
the living God? (Heb. 9:13-14).
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son
to be the propitiation for our sins (I Jn. ).
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for
us; for it is written, Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree (Gal. ).
For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that one died
for all, therefore all died; and he died for all, that they that live should no
longer live unto themselves, but unto him who for their sakes died and rose
again (II Cor. -15).
For hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for you, leav-
ing you an example, that ye should follow his steps (I Pet. ).
You, I say, did he make alive together with him, having forgiven us all our
trespasses; having blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against
us, which was contrary to us: and he hath taken it out of the way, nailing it to
the cross; having despoiled the principalities and the powers, he made a show
of them openly, triumphing over them in it (
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our ini-
quities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we
are healed (Isa. 53:5-6).
In the process of analysis and systematization the Church has in various periods empha-
sized the above aspects of Christ's death in different ways. Apart from an outright denial
of the efficacy of Christ's work none of the historical interpretations are wholly in error.
They are deficient from the standpoint of what they omit rather than defective from the stand-
point of what they include.
The so-called "theories of the atonement" have been enumerated and discussed vol-
uminously. Theories have been variously grouped and separated, contrasted and compared.
The most frequent division is that of (1) subjective theories, (2) objective theories, and (3)
all shades of opinion on the "misty flats in between." In our discussion here we have chosen
an outstanding representative from each of five distinct positions. It is our intention to show
by this study that Christian orthodoxy has developed a doctrine of the atonement which har-
monizes with the Biblical picture of Christ's death as a sacrifice, that this sacrifice was in
accord with the eternal counsels of God, and that the sacrifice of a theanthropic person was
the only possible means of securing a reconciliation between a holy God and sinful men.
Irenaeus (second century, A.D.)--We begin with the Patristic church taking as a repre-
sentative Irenaeus. The early Fathers obviously believed in salvation through the work of
Christ. They adhered closely to the Biblical figures in speaking of Christ's death. However,
the early church had no theological formulation on the atonement--as it did, for example, on
the trinity or the nature of Christ's person. For this reason it is easy to misinterpret illus-
trations used by the Fathers as comprising their whole concept of the doctrine. The view of
the early church with respect to Christ's death has frequently been designated the "Ransom
theory, " or the "Devil-ransom theory." This is due to the Patristic emphasis on the redemp-
tive aspect of Christ's work which was crudely spoken of in those days as a ransom price
paid by God to Satan. It was deemed necessary, in light of man's bondage to sin, death, and
Satan, that the ransom for men's souls be paid to Satan, their captor. It is true that this
concept formed a common motif in those early discussions.
And since the Apostasy [i.e. the rebellious spirit, Satan] unjustly held
sway over us, and though we were by nature [the possession] of Almighty
God, estranged us against nature, making us his own disciples; therefore the
Word of God, mighty in all things and not lacking in his own justice, acted
justly even in the encounter with the Apostasy itself, ransoming from it that
which was his own, not by force, in the way in which it secured the sway over
us in the beginning, snatching insatiably what was not its own; but by persua-
sion, as it became God to receive what he wished; by persuasion, not by use
of force, that the principles of justice might not be infringed, and, at the same
time, that God's original creation might not perish.20
Irenaeus further spoke of Christ's redeeming and sanctifying every stage of human life by
his recapitulation of the same in his own life.
For we have shown that the Son of God did not then begin to exist since he
existed with the Father always; but when he was incarnate and made man, he
recapitulated [or summed up] in himself the long line of the human race,
procuring for us salvation thus summarily, so that what we had lost in Adam,
that is, the being in the image and likeness of God, that we should regain in
THE ATONEMENT AND HUMAN SACRIFICE 31
Later writers, particularly Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius, and Augustine, elab-
orated the theory of Irenaeus into a fantastic scheme whereby God deceived Satan, as with a
fish-hook or mouse-trap, and thus gained the victory over Satan and his forces.
These views, though not a technical theological formulation, characterized the thought of
the church for about a thousand years, until the writing of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo.
Anselm (1033-1109).--Few writings in the history of Christianity have had an influence
comparable to Anselm's Cur Deus Homo. For all its brevity, it marks a turning point in
Christological and soteriological thought. Cur Deus Homo is really the first serious attempt
to define the nature of the atonement. As such it should be the terminus a quo of all subse-
In contrast to Augustine's view that it was good or fitting that God forgive sinners on the
basis of Christ's sacrifice, Anselm attempted to prove by logical argument that there was no
other way.23 Only God himself could repay man's infinite debt and only a man could make
that payment for men. He attacked the old ransom theory, particularly the idea that Satan
had certain "rights" over men. Sin is a violation of God's law, an offense to His honor and
majesty. It is therefore the honor of God that must be satisfied rather than the claims of
The theory of Anselm was largely cast in the terms of feudal society. It was addressed
more to the honor or majesty of God than to His holiness. His view, however, was refined
by the reformers, especially Calvin, later by John Owen and Jonathan Edwards, and is still
held by consistent Calvinists. The view of Anselm, albeit with refinements and variation, is
defended by James Denny, George Smeaton, T. J. Crawford, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge,
W. G. T. Shedd, A. H. Strong, L. S. Chafer, and others of our own era. It is variously
referred to as the commercial view, the penal view, the satisfaction view or the substitu-
Abelard (1079-1142).--The objective theories24 were based on the view of sin as a viola-
tion of God's law. Man stands separated from God by reason of his own personal sin as well
as by reason of his inherited guilt from Adam's sin. He is helpless to change his status of
condemnation apart from a sovereign intervention of grace. It is altogether reasonable that
the Pelagian view of sin25 should generate a theory of the atonement that enables man to help
himself. This type of theory, so-called the subjective or moral influence, was given classic
expression by Peter Abelard. In his opinion the purpose of the death of Christ was to impress
man with the love of God and thereby morally influence him to surrender his life to God.26
Sin is forgiven gratis on the sole condition of repentance and a desire to do better. In his
commentary on Romans, Abelard writes:
Now it seems to us that we have been justified by the blood of Christ and
reconciled to God in this way: through this unique act of grace manifested to
us--in that his Son has taken upon himself our nature and persevered therein
in teaching us by word and example even unto death--he has more fully bound
us to himself by love; with the result that our hearts should be enkindled by
such a gift of divine grace, and true charity should not now shrink from endur-
ing anything for him.27
32 GRACE JOURNAL
A generation ago this theory was defended with various modifications by Albrecht Ritschl
and Fredrich Schliermacher of
and Horace Bushnell of
This view of Christ's work was one of the outstanding features of modernistic theology
and is by no means dead today. William Adams Brown, leading modernist theologian, taught
that Christ's saving work consisted of the revelation of the loving character of God which
calls forth an answering love in us. This revelation influences us morally by what it shows
us to be true.28 Nels Ferre relieves that, "Forgiveness is free and direct to those who are
willing henceforth to live responsibly on the Father's terms for the family."29 Unitarians
subscribe to the example variation of Abelard's theory.
Grotius (1583-1645).--In the
seventeenth century, Hugo Grotius of Leyden,
pounded a theory which Warfield calls a half-way-house between the objective and subjective
views.30 His view is called the governmental or rectoral theory and is expressed in legal
terminology--Grotius himself being a brilliant lawyer. Sin is regarded as rebellion against
the government of God. God in his love will forgive sin but he must demonstrate publicly that
He will not condone sin and thus make forgiveness possible.31
This theory has been adopted and defended by Arminian theologians from the reformation
onward. It is really the highest form of atonement doctrine logically conformable to Armin-
ian theology which rejects the doctrine of imputation, either of sin or of righteousness. De-
fenders of the governmental view include Charles Finney, F. Godet, R. W. Dale, Alfred
Cave, John Miley, and Marcus Dods.
(Prof. of Systematic Theology,
early church, though it erred in the matter of God's deceiving and bribing Satan, had the
value of emphasizing man's bondage to Satan and the necessity of his being freed from that
bondage by the work of Christ. It supported the objectivity of Christ's work. Luther also
emphasized Christ's death as a victory over Satan and man's deliverance from sin, death,
and the law. The old view--which was not, as we have noted, a systematic formulation at
all--has been revived in our day by a group of Swedish theologians, notably, Gustaf Aulen,
and primarily in his book, Christus Victor.32 He refers to his view as the "Classic" or
Describing his own view, Aulen writes:
It was. . .my intention to emphasize that the outlook of the Atonement as a
drama, where the love of God in Christ fights and conquers the hostile powers,
is a central and decisive perspective which never can be omitted and which
indeed must stamp every really Christian doctrine of the Atonement.33
A recent neo-orthodox writer, William Hordern, praises Aulen for rescuing the true view
from the unfortunate terminology in which it was expressed. He argues,
THE ATONEMENT AND HUMAN SACRIFICE 33
It would be strange indeed if the Bible taught the fundamentalist or Ansel-
mic doctrine and if for the first thousand years of Christianity no one recog-
Hordern also notes that Aulen's view has found wide acceptance among neo-orthodox
thinkers because it combines the incarnation and the atonement.35
The Atonement in Modern Thought
A generation ago, B. B. Warfield said:
Voices are raised all about us proclaiming a "theory" of the atonement
impossible, while many of those that essay a "theory" seem to be feeling
their tortuous way very much in the dark. That, if I mistake not, is the real
state of affairs in the modern church.36
If that darkness shrouded the theological discussion in Warfield's day, and he was
presumably a qualified judge, his characterization is certainly no less true of the situation
It is sufficient for our present purpose to note several outstanding characteristics of the
contemporary (i.e., post-reformation) discussion of the atonement.
First, let it be noted that the noncommittal attitude to which Warfield made reference is
still with us. William Hordern, in his popular handbook, A Layman's Guide to Protestant
Theology, candidly admits this:
Whereas fundamentalism makes the Atonement central, modern ortho-
doxy37 tends to make the Incarnation central. Fundamentalism is committed
to one view of atonement--the substitutionary death of Christ for the sins of
man. Modern orthodoxy is, in line with historic Christianity, hesitant to
make any doctrine of atonement final. The result is that the death of Jesus is
of central importance for fundamentalism, while modern orthodoxy, like lib-
eralism, looks to the whole life of Jesus. In particular, modern orthodoxy
emphasizes that the Resurrection of Jesus cannot be separated from his aton-
An Objective theory: Sine Qua Non.--One of the striking characteristics of this area of
thought in our own day is the quest for a satisfactory objective theory. Objective, that is,
except for the "morally objectionable" penal and substitutionary elements of traditional orth-
theology.39 Leon Morris, of
this characteristic in a splendid article in HIS magazine. He writes:
Marked dissatisfaction with purely moral theories of the atonement has
been evident in recent years, and very few (if any) front rank theologians put
forth such views nowadays. This does not mean that any unanimity of opinion
exists, but it does mean that men are feeling for some theory which will be
objective, and yet will not outrage the ideas of our day.40
34 GRACE JOURNAL
Morris explains that the most popular view is one or another variation of the representa-
tive theory. That is, Christ was not our substitute nor was his death a sacrifice as such but
he did do something that serves as a basis for reconciliation.
He was not separate from sinners in His suffering, but dying in their
name, dying for their sake, dying in a way which avails for them.41
In his important work, God Was in Christ, C. M. Baillie struggles with the problem of
defining a theory which is objective and yet avoids the notions of sacrifice, substitution,
and propitiation. He denies that Christ's death was a true sacrifice at all--though Old Tes-
tament sacrificial terms are used to describe it.42 The New Testament expression hilasmos
has nothing to do with appeasing an angry God, "For the love of God is the starting place."43
In fact, the Old Testament sacrificial terminology is completely transformed by the usage of
the New Testament. 44 Nevertheless, he insists that God did something objective and costly
in Christ to make reconciliation possible. The objective element, that which is "Ordained'
and accepted by God, in 'expiation' of human sin, quite apart from our knowledge of it," is
the sacrifice which God is continually making of himself and to himself by suffering on ac-
count of sin.
. . .He is infinite Love confronted with human sin. And it is an expiatory
sacrifice, because sin is a dreadfully real thing which love cannot tolerate or
lightly pass over, and it is only out of the suffering of such inexorable love
that true forgiveness, as distinct from an indulgent amnesty, could ever
Aulen, too, as we have noted,46 although he denies the "commercial" view does set forth
an objective theory.
Christ--Christus Victor--fights against and triumphs over the evil powers
of the world, the 'tyrants'47 under which mankind is in bondage and suffering,
and in Him God reconciles the world to himself.48
In short, modern theologians have come to recognize that an objective theory is the con-
ditio sine qua non of any atonement theory that purports to be Biblical.
Christ's death as a sacrifice.--Another significant feature of recent Christological
thought is the recognition of Christ's death as a sacrifice. Oliver Quick, C. H. Dodd, Vin-
cent Taylor, and A. M. Hunter have given support to this view. The death of Christ is re-
garded as the fulfillment of Isaiah 53. Christ died vicariously in the interests of sinful men
and forgiveness is mediated through his sacrifice.49
Wm. Hordem, in the work cited above, says in reply to Abelard: "Christ's death can
only be a revelation of God's love for man if it was a necessary sacrifice. It is meaningless
if man could be saved without it."50 His own view of Christianity is:
Whereas most religions believe that man has to do something to atone to
God, Christianity teaches that God himself performed the atoning work. Other
THE ATONEMENT AND HUMAN SACRIFICE 35
religions perform sacrifices in order that God might turn his angry face back
toward man and forgive him. Christianity teaches that God has performed a
sacrifice, in and through Jesus, which has brought God and man back into fel-
lowship with each other.51
By and large, however, the theologians of our own day who use the terminology of Old
Testament sacrifice in speaking of the death of Christ do not mean that Christ's death was a
sacrifice in that sense. Rather, sacrifice is distinguished as to (1) Sacrifice as a sacrificial
gift, a votive offering. Man offers something of his own property as a sacrifice on the altar
of his deity. (2) Man's offering of obedience, justice and righteousness, mercy and love.
This is the ethical way of sacrifice. This was the essence of the prophetic message in the
Old Testament. And (3) the sacrifice of a broken spirit--the offering, that is, of the man
himself in humility. This is the religious way of sacrifice.52
The sacrifice of Jesus Christ, however, is of wholly different character. "It is God's own
sacrifice."53 The sacrifice of Christ is both God's own act of sacrifice and also a sacrifice
offered to God.54 Aulen insists that the Anselmic view "develops the latter aspect, and elim-
inates the former."55
The immorality of substitution.--Despite any concessions that theologians have made
toward a truly Biblical Christology, on one point there is no change. The idea of substitution,
of vicarious punishment, is immoral! I call to witness three voices from the past, not be-
cause things have changed, but because the attitude was formerly expressed more candidly
(or crudely) than now. The most cursory perusal of contemporary literature will reveal that
the attitude on this point, though expressed with greater refinement, remains unchanged.
Indeed, how cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the
blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any
way please him that an innocent man should be slain--still less that God
should consider the death of his Son so agreeable that by it he should be re -
conciled to the whole world!56
P. T. Forsyth:
Does God's judgment mean exacting the utmost farthing or suffering?
Does it mean that in the hour of his death Christ suffered, compressed into
one brief moment, all the pains of hell that the human race deserved? We
cannot think about things in that way. God does not work by such equivalents.
Let us get rid of that materialistic idea of equivalents. What Christ gave to God
was not an equivalent penalty, but an adequate confession of God's holiness,
rising from amid extreme conditions of sin.57
On the whole this matter of contrived compensation to justice which so
many take for a gospel, appears to contain about the worst reflexion upon
36 GRACE JOURNAL
God's justice that could be stated. . . The justice satisfied is satisfied with an
injustice The penalties threatened, as against wrongdoers are not to be
executed on them, because they have been executed on a right-doer! viz.,
Vicarious punishment on our level would, of course, be a serious miscarriage of justice
and indeed immoral. The death of Christ, however, is not strictly analogous to the case of
a human judge punishing an innocent third party in the stead of a condemned criminal. At
least the analogy dare not be pressed. In the case of Christ's sacrifice there is only one
party beside the condemned. He is, "Judge, Wronged Party, King (or Law), and Substi-
tute."59 The case is wholly unique and the same Bible which declares it so to be also de-
clares the impossibility of any other substitutionary atonement apart from this.60
The Relevancy of the Atonement for the Interpretation of Genesis 22
As a result of this inquiry into the problem of human sacrifice certain key factors emerge
as guidelines for the interpretation of Genesis 22. Nor do we lack for New Testament war-
rant in drawing such an analogy. Paul certainly alluded to Abraham's experience in Romans
where he writes of Christ's sacrifice: "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered
him up for us all. . . "61
(1) The Biblical record certainly represents Christ's death as a sacrifice and the ortho-
dox Christian community has recognized it as such. Inasmuch as Jesus Christ was indeed
the Son of Man, his death is a human sacrifice.
(2) Those who deny that the New Testament use of sacrificial terminology has reference
to the Levitical offerings do so on the basis of a distorted concept of the idea of sacrifice.
This distorted concept is in turn due to the gratuitous assumption of the evolutionary develop-
of the institutions of
(3) To speak of the immorality of God's acting in any particular way is an exhibition of
pride which elevates the judgment of man above that of God. Such evaluations make man the
standard of universal morality and thereby reveal a wholly inadequate concept of ethics. Man
is the measure of all things.
(4) To insist that God could not have demanded the sacrifice of Isaac on moral grounds
would lend support to the view that God could not have demanded the sacrifice of Jesus Christ
for the same reason. Contrariwise, if the death of Jesus Christ is a true sacrifice, what
ground is left for denying the possibility of God's demanding the sacrifice of Isaac?62
(5) The fact that Isaac was not put to death in no way alters the analogy for from the
viewpoint of both Abraham and God he was already sacrificed63 and his coming down from
the altar was tantamount to a resurrection from the dead. This was the focal point of Abra-
ham's test: He believed that God would raise the son of promise from the dead.64
THE ATONEMENT AND HUMAN SACRIFICE 37
THE NATURE OF THE SACRIFICE OF ISAAC
In light of these considerations we proceed to several lines of argument which support the
traditional view that Abraham was instructed and expected to offer Isaac as a whole burnt-
offering in the usual manner of such sacrifice.
The Divine Origin of the Command
The text of Genesis 22:1 clearly reads: "And Elohim tested Abraham" (translation and
underlining are mine). The serious exegete cannot escape the fact that this text teaches the
divine origin of the idea for this sacrifice without resorting to a most subjective hermeneu-
tics. By way of contrast, modern interpreters, who do not feel duty bound to protect the
reputation of Abraham (or for that matter, of Abraham's God), tend to attribute the idea to
Abraham himself. The suggestion that Abraham was only acting in accordance with the cus-
tom of his day is quite popular.
Here in the story of Abraham and Isaac there is embedded the fact that
once men not only practiced human sacrifice, but did it at what they thought was
If men worshipping pagan deities could carry their religion to that terrific
cost, how could Abraham show that his religion meant as much to him? Only
by being willing to go as far as he did.65
In primitive Israelitish religion every first-born male was regarded as the
property of Yahweh. . . The story of the sacrifice of Isaac is almost certainly
reminiscent of a progress from barbarism to enlightenment.66
We regard as highly improbable the notion that Abraham became aware of this command
through the ordinary action of his conscience. Isaac was a miraculous child of divine prom-
ise. On him rested the only hope of divine blessing for Abraham and all mankind. He was
the sole channel for the ultimate bestowal of eternal salvation. He was therefore to Abraham
the charter of his salvation. That Abraham would have himself conceived the idea for Isaac's
sacrifice is too great a strain on one's imagination.
The Terms of the Command
Abraham was instructed to "offer him there for a burnt-offering." The verb 'alah means
to go up, or ascend; in the hiphil, to cause to go up, and therefore, with respect to sacri-
fices, to offer. The 'olah is the whole burnt-offering. It goes up in the flame of the altar to
God expressing the ascent of the soul in worship. The 'olah is a particular type of sacrifice.
It was the sacrifice that was completely consumed by the fire on the altar. It is significant
that the sacrifice of Isaac is not called a minhah (a gift, present, or offering), a more gen-
eral term that would have more suitably described a so-called "spiritual sacrifice" had that
been intended. Neither is it called a zebah, the general name for sacrifices eaten at the
feasts. It is not a hata't nor an asam or trespass offering. The sacrifice of Isaac was
not intended as a sacrifice for sin. It was an expression of Abraham's own worship and de-
38 GRACE JOURNAL
votion to Yahweh. In light of the universal usage of 'olah for a sacrifice that is wholly con-
sumed by fire, it is only reasonable to expect some qualifying phrase if this were not the
New Testament Evidence
By faith Abraham, being tried, offered up Isaac: yea, he that had gladly
received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; even he to whom
it was said, In Isaac shall thy seed be called: accounting that God is able to
raise up, even from the dead; from whence he did also in a figure receive him
back (Heb. -19).
Was not Abraham our father justified by works in that he offered up Isaac
his son upon the altar? (Jas. )67
From these texts as well as from Gen. 22:12, "For now I know that thou fearest God,
seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me," we learn that from the
standpoint of both Abraham and God the sacrifice of Isaac was complete. Abraham had gone
far enough that there was no question or doubt that he would complete the sacrifice. God was
satisfied. Abraham was so sure of Isaac's death that his coming down from the altar was
tantamount to a resurrection from the dead. It is therefore a figure or type of Christ's death
and resurrection for, auton kai en parabolai ekomisato. This argument is also sustained by
the use of the perfect tense of prosphero in Hebrews 11:17. Pistei prosenanochen Abraam
ton Isaak peirazomenos.
Analogy to the Sacrificial Death of Christ
We have endeavored in this study to point out the analogous relationship between the sac-
rifice of Isaac and the death of Christ as a sacrifice. No interpretation of Genesis 22 can be
adequate that fails to consider the Christological and soteriological implications thus in-
volved. An analogy, however, does not bear an exact correspondence to the reality in every
detail, else it would cease to be an analogy and become an exact equivalent to the reality.
The sacrifice of Isaac corresponds to "that of Christ in the following respects: (1) They
are in both cases the sacrifice by a father of his only son. (2) They both symbolize a com-
plete dedication on the part of the offerer. And (3) they are in both cases a human sacrifice.
On the other hand, no single sacrifice in the Old Testament was sufficient in itself to
fully typify the ultimate sacrifice of Christ. Only by a composite view of all the different
offerings is Christ's death adequately pictured. The sacrifice of Isaac could never have
pictured the most essential idea in the sacrifice of Christ, namely, substitution. Isaac was
not an adequate substitute. It is doubtless for this reason that the hand of Abraham was
stayed and another "parable" introduced, for the substitution of a ram in the stead of Isaac is
certainly an adequate type of a substitute ransom. It is perhaps the clearest illustration of
substitution in the whole Old Testament. Thus the two sacrifices taken together complement
each other in their respective representation of the death of Christ. The sacrifice of Isaac
THE ATONEMENT AND HUMAN SACRIFICE 39
has the merit of adding that dimension which is lacking in all other Old Testament sacrifices,
that God's own sacrifice would be a human sacrifice, and beyond that, the Son of the Offerer
1. John Calvin, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, trans. John King
(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948), I, 563.
2. R. A. S. Macalister, "Human Sacrifice: Semitic," Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics,
ed. James Hastings, VI, 863. This seal is described in detail by Macalister in this art-
icle. For another such seal see: The Jewish Encyclopedia, VIII, 653.
A. H. Sayce, Patriarchal
1895), p. 183.
4. According to Albright, "The extent to which human sacrifice was practiced among the
Canaanites has not been clarified by the discoveries at
mention it at all." W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the
5. W. F. Albright, "Recent Discoveries in Bible Lands," Young's Analytical Concordance to
the Bible (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955), p. 34.
6. The burden of this paper is to demonstrate that human sacrifice per se is an amoral act.
Its acquired morality is dependent on the command or prohibition of God.
7. The chief texts are: Lev. 18:21; 20:1-5; Deut. ; .
8. The chief texts are: Jer.7:31, 19:1-13; 32:35; Isa. 57:5; Ezek. ; .
9. Exod. 20:3. Paul Tillich has accurately observed that the "greater the act of faith or wor-
ship offered to an idol, the greater the abomination to the True God. Dynamics of Faith
(New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957), pp. 11ff.
10. The Biblical material is found in: Exod. 13:1-16; ; 34:20. On the redemption of the
first-born by the substitution of the Levites and the payment of five shekels, see: Num.
11. A. H. Sayce, The Early History of the Hebrews (London: Rivingtons, 1897), p. 51.
12. Ibid., p. 47.
13. In order to avoid the extreme of hyper-Calvinism, the whole matter of divine election
must be viewed in this light. It is not that God elects some men to salvation and some to
perdition; but that of all men, already doomed, God has graciously chosen to
sovereignly elect some to the joys of salvation.
14. Parallel ideas are expressed in the following texts from the Prophets: Amos 5:21-24; Isa.
; Jer. 6:20; and Mic. 6:6-8.
15. Marcus Dods, The Book of Genesis, The Expositor's Bible, ed. W. Rorertson Nicoll (New
16. John Peter Lange, Genesis, trans. and ed. A. Gosman, Commentary on the Holy Scrip-
ture ed. J. P. Lange, trans. and ed. Philip Schaff (
House, n. d.), p. 80. Italics mine.
17. Hobart E. Freeman, "The Doctrine of Substitution in the Old Testament" (unpublished
Th.D. dissertation, Grace Theological Seminary, Winona Lake, Ind., 1961), p. 103.
18. Ibid., p. 96.
19. For a thorough treatment of this idea, see "The Problem of the Efficacy of the Old Tes-
tament Sacrifices," Hobart Freeman, op. cit., pp. 335-358.
40 GRACE JOURNAL
Henry Bettenson (ed.), Documents of the Christian
sity Press, 1957), p. 43.
21. Ibid., p. 42.
22. This of course has not been the case inasmuch as recent neo-orthodox theologians have
returned to the "classic" or early church view.
23. Robert S. Paul, The Atonement and the Sacraments (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1960),
24. Both the ransom theory and the commercial theory are "objective" in that they describe
an effect secured apart from man which serves as the basis for his reconciliation. "Sub-
jective" theories emphasize the work of Christ in and for the believer.
25. Pelagius denied that man inherited either guilt or a sin-nature from Adam. Every man
is as free as Adam. Some men sin: others never do. As Adam was a bad example to
influence men to sin, so Christ is a good example to influence men to holiness.
Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries (
lishing House, 1958), p. 256.
27. Cited by Paul, op. cit., p. 82.
Kenneth S. Kantzer, Unpublished notes on the
Philosophy of Religion (
B. B. Warfield, The Person and Work of Christ, ed. S. G. Craig (
Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1950), p. 379.
31. Advocates of this view distinguish retributive justice from public justice. Christ's death
satisfies the demands of public justice only. For this reason we judge that the govern-
mental theory really reduces to another variation of the moral influence theory. There
is no objective ground for God's forgiving of any particular sin.
32. Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1961), passim.
33. Gustaf Aulen, "Chaos and Cosmos: The Drama of the Atonement," Interpretation, IV
(April, 1950), p. 156. Obviously, we do not deny that this was a part of Christ's work.
For a conservative statement of this aspect see: Wendell E. Kent, "The Spoiling of Prin-
cipalities and Powers, " Grace Journal, III (Winter, 1962), p. 8.
William Hordern, A Layman's Guide to Protestant
issues of the Scriptures, the nature of the Trinity, and the person of Christ. It is no
more surprising that the early church had no technical statement of the Atonement than
that it had no precise ecclesiology or eschatology.
35. Ibid. That is, because it differs from the subjective view of liberalism, which neo-
Orthodoxy regards as bad, and also from the objective view of fundamentalism, which
neo-orthodoxy regards as impossible!
36. Warfield, op. cit., pp. 376-77.
37. That is, what we more commonly call "neo-orthodoxy."
38. Hordern, loc. cit. How interesting that the delay of the church in addressing itself to
the problem of the atonement is sufficient warrant to declare that no doctrine of the
atonement is final. But the same author has no qualms about denying the truth of pro-
positional revelation--a truth on which the church has spoken and spoken clearly.
39. Samuel J. Mikolaski, "The Atonement and Men Today," Christianity Today, V (March 13,
THE ATONEMENT AND HUMAN SACRIFICE 41
40. Leon Morris, "Penal View of the Atonement and Men Today," Christianity Today, V
December, 1960), 33.
42. D: M. Baillie, God Was in Christ (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948), p. 177.
43. Ibid., p. 187.
44. Ibid., p. 175, et passim.
45. Ibid., p. 198.
46. See the discussion of Aulen's atonement theory, above.
47. That is, sin, death, and Satan.
48. Aulen, Christus Victor, p. 4.
49. Mikolaski, op. cit., p. 3.
50. Hordern, op. cit., p. 34.
Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans. Philip
S. Watson (
ster Press, 1953), pp. 120-21.
53. Ibid., p. 122.
54. Aulen, Christus Victor, p. 77.
56. Cited by Paul, op. cit., p. 81.
57. Ibid., p. 236.
58. Ibid., p. 152.
59. H. E. Guillebaud, Why the Cross? (London: Inter-Varsity Fellowship, reprtd., 1956),
60. Ibid., p. 148.
61. The Greek expression ouk epheisato (spared not) is the same as the LXX translation in
Gen. 22:16 which reads: ouk epheiso tou huriou sou tou agapatou di' eme. The form is
aorist middle (deponent) from pheioomai: third person, singular, in Rom. 8; second
person, singular, in Gen. 22.
62. This is not to say that the proposed sacrifice of Isaac was in any sense substitutionary
or piacular in nature. In this respect Jesus' death is wholly unique.
63. Cf. Gen. 22:12, 16; Heb. 11:17; and Jas. 2:21.
64. Heb. 11:17
Walter Russell Bowie, Genesis, The Interpreter's Bible (
66. C. R. North, "The Redeemer God, "Interpretation, II, (Jan. 1948), p. 5.
67. On the supposed conflict between James and Paul over the justification of Abraham by
faith or works, see G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Justification, trans. Lewis B. Smedes
(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1954), pp. 134-139.
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