Blood: Easter and That Damn Liberal Quote

It is almost Easter – my most conflicted time of year as a pastor.

I am smitten with the empty grave. In fact, I am almost as excited about the Easter imagery as I am horrified by N. American protestant’s fascination with the cross.
I have written and talked about this disturbing trend in the past so I won’t take the time to elaborate on it here.

This whole subject has been intensified for me this year. I have been leading a discussion at my church through Lent about historic atonement theories. The hope in doing so has been twofold.

  • We wanted to look at how the churches’ understand of the cross has changed over time.
  • I wanted to suggest a way to move past those previous and limited views.

We have been working through this in conversation with several resources: Saved From Sacrifice, The Non-Violent Atonement and the work of Michael Hardin.
It has been a powerful excersise and I have learned a great deal in the process. It is the week before Palm Sunday and I have two things in the back of my mind:lamb

  1. It bothers me that our most well attended services with the most visitors are our bloodiest (in imagery).
  2. That damn H. Richard Niehbuhr quote.

His famous jab at ‘liberal’ christianity:

“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

This quote gets under my skin so much. Here are 3 reasons why:
1) It is so true. I suspected it when I migrated out West and it is has only been confirmed as I have emerged from an charismatic/evangelical context to a more mainline one. I can not tell you how many people would be covered by Niehbuhr’s concern.

2) We live in a sanitized and sterilized culture (to paraphrase Cornell West) where most people have no connection to the meat on their table. They pick it up at the grocery store in plastic wrapped styrofoam containers. I say this as an avid hunter descended from farmers. We live in a horrifically violent culture (both domestic and military) but so few of us are familiar with blood. We outsource our violence.
This is why a penal substitutionary view of the cross is so attractive /acceptable for so many. The vicarious nature of god pouring out ‘his’ wrath on Jesus results in a pornographic delight that can be seen in depictions like that famous scene in The Passion and in many of our contemporary worship songs.

3) That Niehbuhr quote is thrown around too easily whenever someone wants to reexamine or revisit underlying assumptions about what happened (or how we understand) Easter.

Let me be clear about what I am saying and what I am not saying:
I am not saying that there was no cross and that there was no blood. I get both, I accept both and I proclaim both.
I am saying that something perverse has seeped into our understanding and our imagery.

  • What happened on that cross was real.
  • What happened on that cross mattered.
  • What happened on that cross was unjust.
  • What happened on that cross changed humanity’s relationship to God.

My concern is that we have misunderstood both how it changed and why it changed.
Let me end the critique there and wrap up with a constructive proposal.

When Jesus takes the bread and cup and forever changes their meaning he is saying “what they will do to me – don’t you, as my followers, do to anyone else”.
When Jesus says “forgive them, they know not what they do”, he is saying that they think they know what (and why) they are doing, but they are wrong.
When Jesus says “it is finished”, he is proclaiming the end of this type of scapegoating and violence by those who think they are doing it on God’s behalf.

2 Corinthians 5:18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 [The one] who had no sin [was made] to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.*

We are to be about peace. We are to be a people of reconciliation. In Christ, God absorbed the hatred and violence of the world. The one who knew no sin – an innocent man – was proclaimed guilty and God responds by proclaiming that we who are guilty of doing that are now innocent and our sins are forgiven.

This is the good news of gospel! This is the hope for human-kind. No one needs to be sacrificed any more. No one needs to die because God is angry – Christ’s unjust death is to be the last. In the empty grave we see the vindication of the victim. God took humanity’s wrong judgement of Jesus and now judges us right with God. We who are guilty are proclaimed innocent because the innocent one was found guilty.

Easter is the great reversal and the vindication of the victimized. It is finished. We can’t afford to keep missing this and repeating the mistake. We who follow Jesus must be about peace and reconciliation. Too many have been scapegoated, placed on crosses and victimized by violence … in Jesus’ name.

God forgive us – we know not what we are doing.
Let it be finished.
In Jesus’ name.



* If that final verse reads a little different than you are used to hearing it, you should listen to the podcast with Michael Hardin.

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Christ intended to die, or he wouldn't have lived the way he did.  Nor would he have told Pilot, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” John 19:10

Let's not assume that Christ's destination was ever in doubt.  Nor should we assume that the cross is the end of the story.  

The cross and the empty tomb are the beginning, and the end. 


I think this conversation is confused because we attribute an active role to God in the crucifixion when in reality, it was human motivations which drove the whole thing. Throughout Jesus’ ministry there were people who wanted him dead. There are quite a few places in the gospels where Jesus slipped out of town in order to escape those who would kill him. It was human desire which sought the death of Jesus and not the demands of God. In fact, there was nothing about the execution of Jesus which conformed to the rules of God. Regular rules for trial were ignored. Jesus wasn’t subjected to the scriptural means of death for one who blasphemed – that being stoning. Even the usual proscription against killing during the Passover feast was ignored. It wasn’t the fury of God which propelled events forward; it was the fury of men which did that.  This was an event of human motivations and means from start to finish.

The claim that the crucifixion of Jesus was a sacrifice demanded by God, ignores the bald, ugly reality of what actually happened. Rather than an example of a sacrifice demanded by God, the death of Jesus is a fantastic display of the worst behaviors and traits that humans can muster up. There was nothing about it that reflected God’s desire or demands. This was the work of human beings through and through.

And yet . . . God takes this ugly, evil display of cruelty, vice, power, betrayal, self-interest and arrogance and does what he is wont to do with the things we humans come up with. He uses it to turn us towards himself. It’s as if he says, “are you done now? Are you satisfied? Have you vented your fury and poured out your sinfulness on me to your satisfaction? Fine. Then it is done. You poured out your sin on me and my son. And now, I have redeemed even the worst that you can do. He is risen. He is Lord of Lords and King of Kings now. You sin has no power. It has no power to defeat me and it has no power to separate us any longer. Turn away from it and seek after me.”

At least that's my take on it. I'm a mom, not a theologian, although I like to play one on the internet. So if anyone knows if this view of attonement/the crucifixion falls into some named category, please let me know. (A more detailed explanation of my view on the matter as well as the roots/purpose of blood sacrifice can be found here:

Dave Zimmerly
Dave Zimmerly

God is peace, but peace is not god brother. We are foreigners here, and we are not at peace with this world. God reconciled those who are His to Himself. But He is also the God of judgment and wrath. Thank God for His mercy to us who WERE His enemies.


I have to admit my initial thought at this (before reading it) was to be a bit confused.  In my encounters with Protestant churches, I see a minimization of the cross in favor of a focus on the victory of the empty tomb (Everybody likes a winner).  Compared to my Catholic upbringing, Good Friday is just not a big deal.  

After actually reading it (a couple of times), I think I see what you're identifying, but I want to check.  It seems that the problem is more qualitative than quantitative.  Not how much they look to the cross, but how they look to the cross?

Jez at unhappyhippy
Jez at unhappyhippy

Any thoughts on 2 phrases in Isaiah 53 in relation to non-violent atonement?


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 bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by 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.

This supports the view that God put mankind's sin, and brokenness of creation, on Jesus, but we wrongly ascribe the violence to God.
God laid on Him the iniquity - that's all.
We esteemed him smitten by God - that's wrong.

So far so good.
But secondly:
10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief.

My long forgotten Hebrew was never good enough to dig into those phrases to decipher the meaning, but it here seems itself to ascribe the violence to God.

As one being convinced by Hardin, how do we understand these phrases?

Robert Steiginga
Robert Steiginga

Sorry Greg, but with some heavy thought, I will be leaving your connection here on Facebook. I fear we have far too deep a disconnect, you and I. What you see as important, and as truth, wanders too far off the path for such as I. Take care


I hope you found Heim useful.  I've never figured out why anyone would use Girard to talk about sacrifice, since he is simply and demonstrably wrong about the origins of sacrifice.

A few years ago I started writing a book about atonement, and stopped when I realized that, while everyone is talking about atonement (the process), almost no one is talking seriously about salvation (the result).  This seemed rather odd to me.  So I like the way you also shift the focus to the result, and then go back to the process.  For another perspective, check out my stuff on amazon.

Isaac FL
Isaac FL

If I understand correctly, we are saying no more, putting the blame in someone else, this kind of behavior is over in Christ.

What I'm having a hard time understanding, - and this comes from the way I've been thought - is that the plan of God has always been  to put his one and only son on the cross so that we can be forgiven of our sin The God that puts innocent people on crosses is not as nice as Jesus (to quote tripp) I think.

Now I can see that there are atonement "theories" which leaves me thinking that there is still room for experimentation, that there isn't one single fact that happened at the cross of Jesus of Nazareth, but we can still develop and learn from it


@upsidedwnworld  You are an apologist but I'm not sure to what. You speak like a theologian those adorned with accolades and degrees have no corner on the Theology market that they don't create themselves. I appreciate your recognition of mankind's role in Christ's suffering because we are the catalyst and the reason Christ chose to accept the Father's cup of wrath poured out; however there is too much prophesy on this event coupled with His role in all history to not accept that without His will I don't believe this crucifixion would  have happened. Christ's pleading in the garden made it clear and His words to his persecutor's (us in proxy) that he willingly laid down his life and that that they possessed no authority to do so without the Father granting it makes God's role evident and clear. Continue with your studies and analysis you have a gift and a thirst for knowledge and He promises to liberally provide to those who do thirst for knowledge. Happy Easter The Resurrection should always become our focus point.


@upsidedwnworld  This is exactly why we need more moms and fewer theologians talking about atonement.  As a biblical scholar, my first question when reading theology is What real question is being avoided here?  So thanks for starting with what is real- Jesus died because of how he lived.  That's why the Romans killed him.  That's why the Jewish leadership set him up.  We have so many atonement theories as a way to avoid following  Jesus.  We make his suffering and death unique so that we can avoid true servanthood.  People who change diapers know that stuff happens, and then you deal with it.  But someone still needs to change the diapers.  Theories of atonement are more interesting than diapers, but that just means that we theologize so that someone else can do the real work. Jesus did the real work, and then he was killed.  His "real work" was not his death.  That was just the result, the response from those in power.


@Jez at unhappyhippy  In the end, in the same way that God allows harm to befall Job, God also allowed harm to befall Jesus.

Is allowing the harm to occur any different than directly causing the harm?


As a big Girard fan, I'm curious about your comment about Girard being wrong on the origin of sacrifice. Do you have sources I can go to?

BoSanders moderator

@WesBergen  Good stuff - I will try to do that. 

but to answer your question (at least attempt to) I think that people use Girard because of how sacrifice functions . Not telling you what to do ... but folks are hung up on the origin part. He accurately addresses its perforative aspect. 

just my 2cents  -Bo 

trippfuller moderator

@Isaac FL one question I ask when assessing atonement theories is "does this account of the story draw a character distinction between the Father and the Son?"  Not only should God at least be as nice as Jesus but even orthodox trinitarian theology insists on the shared mission and mutual participation of the three persons in their economic (saving relation to the world) activity.  That eliminates some popular theories but opens up a number of different accounts and avenues to get at the mystery of the cross.

BoSanders moderator

@MickyScottBeyJones  You are very welcomed.  

on a different note, a quick wiki search brought " in The Kingdom of God in America(1937), he also criticized the liberal social gospel, describing its message as, "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."[2]


@DouglasSears @upsidedwnworld  @WesBergen 

I feel like I should clarify my crack about being a mom, not a theologian. I am a mom, yes. And I have no formal training in theological studies, yes. But I've put in many thousands of hours of study every year for nearly 15 years, plus countless hours spent in prayer and meditation and written millions of words on the subject of Christian theology and spirituality. So while I only speak pidgen theologinese and never have spent much time reading the various theologians who came after the desert mothers and fathers, I'm hardly a novice. Despite my lack of formal training, I would feel comfortable and confident in going toe-to-toe with just about any working theologian or scholar out there. 

As to the crucifixion, I would just like to add that I don't think that the only function of the cross was securing the forgiveness of sins. I think the cross and the entire passion event was essential to Jesus' work as Emanuel, God with us. Without experiencing death and suffering and even the loss of control over events, Jesus' work as Emanuel would have been incomplete. Given that this was an important part of his goal and mission, I view the events of the cross as something which Jesus and God foresaw and choose to submit to. 

Regarding God's wrath, I think we need to bear in mind that God's wrath works in two ways. The first is that what is often believed to be God's wrath is merely humanity's perception of God's wrath. Consider the question asked of Jesus regarding the man born blind - "who sinned?" Or even Jesus' response to the news of deaths resulting from the collapse of a tower. People think that suffering is caused by God's anger. To those observing Jesus' suffering from the perspective of Good Friday, Jesus' suffering would have been powerful confirmation that he was not the true messiah. No doubt many thought that his suffering, humiliation and death was God's wrath for his false teachings. This was not the case, of course. But neither is most human suffering the result of God's wrath. Yet perceiving suffering as the result of God's wrath is a common human error. Part of being Emanuel means sharing in the experience of innocent suffering, erroneously attributed to God's anger.

The second issue with God's wrath is that it is never an end unto itself. It's not as if God sits around, storing up his wrath until he can't stand it anymore and unleashes it in a cathartic episode of fury. God's wrath is always associated with correction, purification and a sort of reset of our relationship with him. The cross certain served all of those functions. Which is to say that the point of the cross wasn't to give God an object to pour out his fury on, but as is always the case with his wrath, to provide correction to us, to offer forgiveness (purification) and to reset our relationship with him. 

At any rate, thanks for the encouragement. I just wanted to clarify a couple of points. 



@phule77 You asked, "Is allowing the harm to occur any different than directly causing the harm?"

I think this is essentially the problem with believing in an omnipotent God. If a person were to see an act of violence happening to another person and had the ability to stop it, then it would be ethical for them to stop it. Conversely it would be unethical for them not to stop it. If an omnipotent God sees acts of violence happening to people like genocide, rape, and murder then why does he not intervene? If he doesn't then I think that means he is acting in an unethical way. 

I guess to answer your question, at least for me I have to say that allowing the harm to be caused is similar, ethically speaking, to causing the harm.

Jez at unhappyhippy
Jez at unhappyhippy

@phule77 @Jez at unhappyhippy
Massively I think.

I guess the Gospel narratives address the dilemma that Jesus could have called on Divine interventions (e.g, in the temptations, plus meaning that it seemed a real option, i.e. he wasn't powerless - but by intervening in this fallen world as victim in order to change it, he couldn't switch to a 'might is right' policy when it got a bit hot.

So God chose a suffering servant to redeem us from the myth of redemptive violence.

Isaiah 53 v 10 still puzzles me though.


@cdbaca  It's been a while since I did this research, and all my research is sitting in another continent, so I have to do this from memory.  I don't remember any specific sources.  Girard's idea of the origin of sacrifice comes directly out of the old desire to find the "ur" (origin) of ideas and actions, as if all things come from a single origin.  That whole line of thinking is now seen as unlikely and unnecessary.  His other stuff just suffers from being decades out of date.  it was a good response to the theories and questions of his time.  Sorry I can't be of more help.

Isaac FL
Isaac FL

@trippfuller So a question that one should ask is not what would Jesus do? but what would the trinity do? The way I have understood the sacrifice of Christ/Jesus was that this was meant to be by God, but then Jesus would not crucify an innocent man, so the father would but not the son and there is a conflict here, but if the trinity is working in harmony neither would behave like that, and when we are responding to the uncomfortable visitation of the Divine we are compelled to act like the trinity would.


@upsidedwnworld @DouglasSears  I am glad you did I suspected you were more savvy then you let on. Perhaps you were just making sport at any rate I have nowhere the vast Theological prowess but enjoy such discussion. I'm in agreement with your unique view of the Crucifixion but I still believe that one important reason perhaps the most important for this public outpouring of God's wrath was to make it clear that the Truth of what Christ foretold was evident to all. Furthermore to show us the suffering required by our sinful nature. We participate with Him. 1 Cor 1:18 tells us that it is foolishness to the perishing but to the Christian it is the power of God demonstrated through the Gospel. It also is the path to reconciliation I believe the example that only true repentance frees us from wrath and is the way God ended once and for all the enmity between man and Him. The Crucifixion bears out God's enormous phenomenon here we are some two thousand years later speaking of and writing about an event that though I never witnessed am certain of it's testimony about my savior. When I read Isiah it is as real to me as any personal event I have ever attended.  Wrath is a conundrum in that I feel it holds my attention and fully believe in His wrath and feel reluctant to defend such to those who find it foolish if I were to be caught up in a natural or personal disaster it is fully appropriate for some to speculate whether that was my penance or I was an innocent caught in circumstance, my personal relationship is all that is required for me at that moment. I feel that God carries a passive wrath that will be mine at my judgement and for me to speculate on any other is just that.  I pray that we don't and believe that we have become insulated to an engaged wrath with our God at any rate enjoyed your comments and your expository talent GOD Bless...


@DouglasSears @willhouk i think you guys are running a bit far afield of the intent of my original comment.

Jez noted "
10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief." And was asking how do we deal with this concept of God bruising Christ, putting Him to grief?

I noted that in Job God allows things to befall Job, that it is likely within His power to prevent this harm from occurring, but instead he allows disaster to fall.

Jesus knew that by going forward with His ministry, he would be attacked, tortured, and crucified by the ruling authorities. It was a forgone conclusion. There are all sorts of supernatural ways that he could have avoided that end, but instead he rode it out.

This is just one of many reasons that I see in the bible where it appears that God prefers to go through life with us, rather than push us in certain directions...God operates within our lives, and along side us, rather than being an impelling force. God allows cirumstances, and we who act alongside God may yet testify to great Glory in the midst of those things.


@willhouk @phule77  Simply put into those parameters it does appear unethical, there are a myriad  of snags to consider when like you commented that it's a problem believing in God's omnipotence. His omnipotence is the first hurdle in questioning His motive, as well as comprehension from our viewpoint is constricting to say the least. If He were to intervene in every circumstance or where and when to decide that intervention was necessary is a question that would ultimately end free will.   Additionally His omnipotence provides an eternal viewpoint our destiny and life carries eternal plans time constrains us and was created to aid our understanding not so with God. I believe that God grieves when we do I believe in His ultimate wisdom more than mine and am anxiously awaiting His perfect will to be a part of my comprehension.


@WesBergen @cdbaca  Finally found what I was looking for in Heim's book. It's pretty much a restatement of what Bo said in reply to your original comment, but I'll post it anyway. He says this in a footnote on page 54 of Saved from Sacrifice:

"Girard's view need not be seen as a totalistic account of traditional religion. That is, sacrifice can be more than Girard says it is, and traditional religion can be more than sacrifice. So there may be certain practices of sacrifice that are about exchange with the divine, even in private, individual terms. And there are features of religion that deal with other issues important in their own right, such as life after death, moral codes, coming-of-age events, and so on... For the purposes of this book it is fully sufficient that the dynamic Girard describes has been a real factor in sacrifice and religion. It is this factor that  is of special interest for understanding the cross."

While this doesn't mean we shouldn't question whether Girard is right about the origin of sacrifice, this doesn't negate whether he is right on how sacrifice functions, particularly for communities. If scapegoating sacrifice does often work as a sort of 'pressure-release valve,' so to speak, then viewing the atonement in terms of Jesus as the 'Last Scapegoat' would be much more preferable than penal sub, which is completely at odds with Girard's view of the function of sacrifice.


  1. […] want to thank all of you who shared, commented and emailed about this past weekend’s post on Blood: Easter, the Cross and that quote about Liberals.  I have received lots of feedback via email, FaceBook and […]

  2. […] can listen to that interview with Hardin here.  The original post about blood and the cross [here] and the Concerns of the Cross [here].  Our nerdy conversation about the cross on TNT […]