I remember a story told by an old priest friend of giving communion to a bunch of kids that came from a housing project across the street from the church. These kids weren’t raised in a liturgical church and had been coming on their own. Thrown directly into the Sunday service, at least some of them had no background for the rituals and traditions contained in the communion service. So when my friend offered the communion cup to one of the girls with the formula, “the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation,” she recoiled and declared, “yuck!”
Little did she know her response was in keeping with rumors spread about the early church--rumors that are understandable given all this language of blood sacrifice--that Christians were cannibals among other things.1 It’s a pretty stark accusation to make about a religion that’s supposed to be about love of neighbor and God.
These rumors came from the language around the communion service, language lifted straight out of what the gospels record as Jesus’ words at the last supper: “Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’ (Luke 22:19-20 NRSV).
The first thing to notice about this is who is speaking. If we approach these texts looking for an answer to the question, “Did God kill Jesus?”, we have our first hint at an answer in the immediate text. Jesus is the actor in this story. He is explaining his upcoming death and resurrection and the meaning of these events to the people closest to him so they will understand what he’s doing. In another text, Jesus clearly states that “no one takes my life from me,” that he’s laying it down willingly (John 10:18). So just from this overview, it is safe to answer the question clearly, no, God didn’t kill Jesus. But there’s more to the question than can be answered this briefly.
There are essentially two major, theological premises underscoring how we answer this question. The first is the nature of God and the second is the nature of sacrifice, although I think we will see that those two are actually intertwined. At this point I must also digress and say that it is unlikely I will do this justice entirely because of the size of the premises that underpin the question, but I will do my best to sketch enough of each that we can answer the question at hand.
Starting with Jesus’ words at the last supper, the breaking of bread and the pouring of wine, I find it helpful to time-travel back to the beginning of Luke where Mary, already pregnant with Jesus, visits her cousin Elizabeth and the women proceed to prophesy: Mary in a poem known as the song of Mary. In this prophecy, she says that the Savior to be born “has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53a). I love that she is singing of her babe yet to be born and yet uses the past tense. In this, she shows remarkable awareness of God come to earth as a continuation of God’s work in the world. Specifically, she speaks of God lifting the lowly, casting down the mighty, feeding the hungry, and sending the rich away. She highlights in just a few phrases that God’s actions on earth, God’s reign, if you will, has always been about shalom, or the thriving of all. Her song speaks to a great societal reversal where God’s upside-down values are made plain. Or perhaps we should say “God’s values” as they are only upside down compared to the patterns and hierarchies we humans tend to arrange ourselves in.
As I mentioned in my explanation of my methods for this project, “What you almost invariably find is that even what looks harsh to us is in fact God pushing culture towards justice and liberation and equality by meeting people where they are at and then moving them more towards God’s ideal. I call this looking for the arcs of justice and liberation in Scripture. Because once you learn to see them, they are clearly there, sometimes it just takes some digging.”2
So with this understanding of looking for the arcs of justice and liberation, we can further set the last supper and the cross itself in context by looking at the feeding of the five thousand. With Mary setting the stage for the hungry being fed, one of Jesus’ major miracles is the feeding of the five thousand. In this event, we find Jesus not only multiplying food offered by a young boy who donated his lunch to the cause, not only feeding everyone in attendance until they were satiated, but making enough that there were twelve baskets of leftovers.
And then we come back to the last supper. Jesus frames his upcoming sacrifice on the cross in the context of a meal. Using physical nourishment as a picture of spiritual nourishment, the bread and wine in the meal are also God’s physical provision for those present. The physical and the spiritual are irrevocably intertwined.
This marriage of the physical and the spiritual isn’t a new thing either; rather, it reaches back to the origin of the practice of animal sacrifice in Leviticus. There we see the nation of Israel practicing blood sacrifice to an unseen deity. Blood sacrifice tends to be the sort of thing that offends our modern sensibilities, but I think a misunderstanding of Leviticus and the rites set down there affects our understanding of Christ and the cross.
It is tempting to skim over the uncomfortable bits in Leviticus, and indeed, I do not have the space to do justice to this complex book. However, I want to zoom in on two thoughts that I think can be safely lifted from the context and examined without being untrue to the complexities that surround them.
The first is that Israel is a nation among nations, all of which for the most part, practiced blood sacrifice. The difference in the institutions of Israel’s practice lies in the nature of the sacrifice as building a relationship with God. Rather than constant blood to appease the wrath of an unseen, impersonal deity (or deities as in the case of the surrounding nations), God uses this familiar and common religious practice to bring attention to how people relate to each other, the devastating nature of sin as breaking relationships with each other and God, and the need for drastic measures to restore that relationship.
There’s also the offering of thanksgiving and which--in keeping with our theme from Luke-- “feeds Israel; the people themselves feast that day on the flesh they have slaughtered and laid on the altar of the tabernacle. As manna is God’s own gift to a rebellious and starving people, and the bread and fish food enough for the desperate crowds who longed for bread that would last, so the sacrifice that is taught in covenant law comes from God. It is Most Holy.”3 Leviticus shows us the purpose of sacrifice, but also shows us something that gives us insight into understanding Jesus’ work on the cross.
In contrast to the surrounding nations where vengeful and capricious deities demand gifts from humanity in order to not smite them, Yahweh, the God of Israel, frames sacrifice first in the story of Abraham and Isaac, again a decidedly uncomfortable text, where instead of human sacrifice, God personally provides a ram. The grain and animals offered to God by Israel are already provided to Israel by God. God provides the remedy for the brokenness of humans first in temple sacrifices, and finally by offering Godself in the ultimate identification with human suffering.
God becomes human and is killed at the hands of an unjust state. God becomes human and identifies completely with human suffering, becomes the ultimate sacrifice once and for all, and becomes the bridge by which the brokenness in human relationships can be healed.
It is important to note that God does this. Jesus is God come to earth, so there is no sense in which God can be said to have killed Jesus. All of this is God acting on the behalf of God’s beloved humans for the benefit and thriving of God’s beloved humans.
This brings us to the other theological premise underpinning the question: the nature of God.
There’s a running joke in Episcopal churches that the rector (lead priest/pastor) always assigns Trinity Sunday sermons to the seminarian. Indeed, the nature of God as Trinity is one that’s difficult to try to explain. Most analogies quickly run off into heresy. The only one I’ve heard that holds any merit is from Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury where he said that the nature of the trinity is like fire. You can have fire on a torch, and then use that to light another torch and then another. All three are distinct instances of the same thing: fire. Or in other words, distinct instances with the exact same essence. But even that falls short, I think because God existing in three persons isn’t exactly the same as three torches either. But I can’t do better than that for a visual, so if it helps, it helps.
I find it easier to focus on what God as trinity means for us. It means God’s nature is to exist in relationship. It’s no small wonder that God wants to be in relationship with us humans, but then, it is just God’s nature. God creates. Specifically, in the second person of the Trinity, the word and wisdom from the Old Testament, the Word who creates and Sophia who walks the streets of our world crying for people to heed her warnings was made flesh in Jesus: the incarnate God--word and wisdom made flesh. The doctrine of the Trinity was the way the Christians came to express their experience of Jesus as God who yet talked to God.
And no, I cannot wrap my head entirely around this either, it’s something that must be held in tension without too much emphasis on either the one or the three or it’s easy to get mixed up. It just is. God is. God is in perpetual relationship with Godself and God’s nature is a love so big that God entered into human suffering. Fully human, God was put to death in the cruelest way possible at the hands of human powers and forever took humanity into Godself. In rising from the dead, Jesus remained in that scarred, yet healed, human flesh that he’d assumed; and in his ascension, took it with him.
It’s worth noting here, as Sonderegger has pointed out, that Jesus come to earth, assuming the form of a creature, though being the Creator; and, being sacrificed on the altar of the cross, then ascends into heaven like the smoke the people of Israel watched as the sacrifices were made first in the tabernacle and then in the temple. Jesus completes the entire sacrificial ritual in himself, for all of time. Jesus is love made flesh, come to to share all of our humanity, including death itself, in order that death itself might be conquered on our behalf.
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Wagemakers, Bart. “Incest, Infanticide, and Cannibalism: Anti-Christian Imputations in the Roman Empire.” Greece & Rome 57, no. 2 (2010): 337–54. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40929483. Accessed 5 October 2021.
Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: Volume 2, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2020), pp. 462-3.