Friday, May 31, 2013

What is Blood Atonement or Vicarious Atonement?

It is taught in Christianity that God became incarnate in a human form to save humanity.  But how, exactly, did this happen?  Why was it necessary?  If all men are judged on the basis of their actions, why did God need to come to reveal Himself in human form, and suffer, until He rose from the dead?  If this is what you believe, and someone directly asks you how this can be so, can you explain it in logical manner, or are you going to say it is a "mystery of faith"?

The Protestant explanation, is that God revealed this law to the Jews, but the purpose of that revelation was not for man to fulfill his duty of the law, but rather it was to show that man was imperfect and could not fulfill it.  Therefore, Jesus came to fulfill the law, and as God was "wrathful" with mankind for their sin, all sins were then "transferred" to Jesus on the cross.  And all one has to do is believe, pay lip service, and then one's sins are automatically transferred to Jesus on the cross.  And when God looks at you, He sees the righteousness of Jesus. This is the theology of the Protestant churches, and somewhat the Catholic as well.

There is just one problem. On a close examination of scripture, it disagrees with multiple passages in scripture.  And if one looks at it logically, it makes no sense.  Yet something happened where Jesus saved humanity. On close examination of the New Testament, He did this so that the Holy Spirit could come and cleanse our heart, when we perform acts of repentance. We had so departed from God's will that it was necessary that a direct link be opened up, as communion with heaven was cut off. Without communion with heaven, no man can do good, and one's will cannot be reformed. Not only does this make perfect sense, but also it is not contrary to the earlier revelation given to the Jews: it was still necessary for each person to keep God's commandments. We are responsible for our actions, and it is still necessary to turn against evil. One does this by periodic self examination. There are different stages of spiritual development, which I discuss in The Three Steps of Spiritual Development.

So why do people believe in "blood atonement" or "vicarious atonement"?  This kind of theology actually began to become popular in the 11th century A.D., after the Catholic Church split from the Orthodox Church.  The Protestant Reformers inherited this theology from the Catholic Church. There are certain passages that are used as "proof texts" to support the doctrine.  In the gospel of Matthew, there is just one short reference, where Jesus establishes the ritual of communion:
Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. (Matt. 26:27-28)
So, the logic goes, God required a "sacrifice" to satisfy His "wrath" against humanity.  Two errors in this thinking, one implicit, the other explicit:
1. The theology assumes a wrathful Father God, and this separate being, the Son, could only fulfill His requirements. This comes from the false idea of a trinity of three persons. In fact, it was God Himself who became incarnate in the human form. The human form in which He became incarnate is the Son.
2.  God is pure Love, and never gets angry or wrathful.  When men sin, they turn away from this love, and as they cannot receive it, God appears "wrathful" to them when they are in this sinful state.
In other words, for God to become incarnate, it was done out of pure love.  But what about the reference to the blood that gets poured out for the remission of sins?  Doesn't that mean a sacrifice was necessary to remove sin?  The scriptural passage is problematic: as in many situations, Jesus did not speak directly, but in a round about away - and this has led to innumerable disputes, especially when it comes to the Eucharist or communion.  The problem is Jesus is now describing a symbolic ritual.  That by body and blood in the communion ritual He means something else, is shown more explicitly in the gospel of John:
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed.He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. (John 6:53-56)
When Jesus mentioned the above, many were confused and left from following Him. Taken literally it makes no sense. And it is important to note, He said this before He revealed the ritual of the communion.  By body and blood, He is talking about something spiritual - but what?  If we return back to the gospel of Matthew, Jesus states, that His blood "is shed for many for the remission of sins." Lets look at other passages in the gospels which mention the "remission of sins":
John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. (Mark 1:4)
Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-47)
So note the above passages: remission of sins, their removal, is only done through acts of repentance. Without turning away from sin, there is no remission. You are responsible for your actions. Once you recognize a specific sinful behavior, and turn against it, by reforming one's life, the sin is removed. Plain and simple.  That is how you cleanse your life.  Note that the first passage was stated before Jesus made His sacrifice, the second after it. Nothing changed in terms of our human responsibility to repent and follow God's commandments.


If we go outside the gospels, we come to a statement from the apostle Peter:
Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38)
Again, remission of sins is based on repentance.  This cleansing is symbolized by water baptism. Water baptism, in turn, is symbolic of the spiritual reception of the Holy Spirit in one's heart. That is what happens when you repent from your sin, for once you cleanse your heart, the way is prepared for a closer communion with God, where He will abide in you, and you in Him.  Thus baptism should be done in the name of Jesus Christ, from whom comes the Holy Spirit.

People are sanctified, or spiritually cleansed, by knowing, understanding, and living by the Divine Truth. This is drawn from the word of scripture. Thus Jesus said:
Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. (John 17:17)
Jesus first had to sanctify or cleanse Himself, so that others could be sanctified. This is not so well understood in modern Christian churches, as they either assume He was born perfect, and/or that Mary had no sin from a type of Marian worship. Although His soul was Divine, the human body He inherited from Mary was not, and thus could be tempted to do sin. Conflict between Jehovah and all of hell ensued as a result (see Jesus the Shaman - Descent into the Underworld). Sanctification was the process of resisting sin in His human body, until His very body was made Divine. Thus Jesus says the following:
And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth. (John 17:19)
Once Jesus sanctified His body, and it was made Divine, the Divine truth extended from His body as the Holy Spirit. His spirit was Divine, and became universably available. This was not available until Jesus made His body glorified, or Divine, or one with the Father:
...the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified (John 7:39)
The Holy Spirit is not a separate being or person existing from eternity. It is the Divine spirit proceeding from the body of Jesus, which flows through the body from the Divine itself, the Father.  It is through the Holy Spirit that people are cleansed from sin:
...that the offering of the Gentiles might be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15:16)
But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:11)
God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth (2 Cor. 2:13)

In addition to the reference to sanctification by the Holy Spirit, there are numerous passages which state that sins are not removed except through the blood of Jesus. So what does this mean? Are sins removed by repentance through knowing and acting upon the Divine truth of the word, or by the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross? Is one sanctified by the Divine truth of the Holy Spirit, or by the blood of a sacrifice? I will quote a few of these passages below:
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace (Eph. 1:7).
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Eph. 2:13).
...we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:14)
For You were slain, And have redeemed us to God by Your blood (Rev. 5:9)
The following passages talk about sanctification by the blood of Jesus:
By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (Heb. 10:10).
For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified (Heb. 10:14)
Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate (Heb. 13:12)
if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7)
So the question again is this: are we sanctified by repentance and living according to the Divine truth of the Holy Spirit, or is it through the blood of Jesus Christ?  The following passage is interesting, as sanctification by the Holy Spirit is mentioned in conjunction with the sacrifice by Jesus:
elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:2)
The implication here is that to be baptized by the Holy Spirit is the same as being washed by the blood of Jesus. To be "washed by blood" is a symbolic figure of speech. That to be cleansed by the blood of Jesus, and to be cleansed or sanctified by the Holy Spirit, is one and the same thing, is shown by the spiritual meaning of "blood" represented by wine in communion. Swedenborg explains this in the following passage:
From known correspondences what is meant by the Lord's flesh and blood is known, and that the bread and wine have a similar meaning; that by the Lord's flesh and by the bread the Divine Good of His Love is meant, also all the good of charity; and by the Lord's blood and by the wine the Divine Truth of His Wisdom is meant, also all the truth of faith; and by the eating is meant appropriation. (True Christian Religion, n. 702)
Throughout his writings, Swedenborg explains from scripture in multiple passages where food or bread is symbolic of love, and blood (or wine) are symbolic forms of truth. I won't go into those passages at the moment as this blog would become too long, but I can sum it up with the consideration that in the Old Testament the life of the soul was said to reside in the blood. At one point, Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to the disciples by breathing on them. Likewise, we now know through science that it is through the blood that oxygen is carried to all our cells in the body.  It is by acknowledgment of the truth, and acknowledgment of our sins, that we are reformed and regenerated.

The reason why the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is so tied in with the blood of Jesus is that without His sacrifice, the Holy Spirit would be unavailable to us. And it was not just His death on the cross - it was a life-long sacrifice of Jesus resisting sin and temptation in His human until that human was made Divine. From His body proceeds the Holy Spirit. When each person commits an act of repentance to turn away from sin, thus cleansing oneself, it is the Lord who helps one internally through one's will and thought to fight against any internal sin or evil. Thus in the Lord's prayer it is said, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." For only God can resist evil, but He cannot act unless we act through the will to turn away from evil. Thus every Christian becomes an extension of Christ, who resisted sin and temptation in His own human. Thus it is said, we are the body of Christ - quite more literally than what is generally known.

So from the New Church standpoint, there is no such thing as "vicarious atonement", where sins are automatically transferred to the passion of the cross about 2,000 years ago to satisfy a wrathful God. It makes absolutely no logical sense, it is impractical in everyday life, is contrary to repentance, and goes against common-sense morality and human responsibility. Is it any wonder that western society in general has become secular and immoral? This is a late theology that originated in the 11th century A.D., and was extended further by the Protestant Reformers in the 16th century A.D. It is a late theology, and was not a part of the original gospel. Protestant churches will take this one point alone and try to claim that the New Church is some sort of "cult", without realizing it is they who are following a corrupted theology of Christianity. That this theology is late, and was unknown to the early Christian Church, is shown by the fact that the Orthodox Church does not follow this theology of "vicarious atonement", but have a very similar theology of salvation to what was revealed more explicitly in the revelations given to Emanuel Swedenborg. And one does not even need to read Swedenborg to reach this conclusion - I had arrived at the same quite independently, just thinking about it in a rational fashion by examining scripture. For an Orthodox view on this idea of vicarious atonement, I can recommend the site, Why I cannot in good conscience be a Protestant", in which is said the following:

In the briefest terms possible, Orthodox Christians do not believe that Christ’s death was payment to God the Father for sin, but rather that Christ has redeemed human nature by participating in it. The Incarnation was necessary because Christ redeemed our human nature and reconciled it to God by uniting it with His divinity.


  1. Hi Doug,

    Thanks for a nice piece on the atonement. I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition of remission of sins through the blood of Jesus and remission of sins via the baptism of repentance. In this connection, the water of baptism, the blood of Jesus, and the wine (fermented or not) of the Holy Supper all have a similar representation: the truth of God that cleanses us from our evil desires and false thoughts.

    About Mary having no sin, that is the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is an entirely different thing than the Virgin Birth--a distinction even many Catholic laypeople don't get (though Catholic clergy are well aware of the distinction). The idea of the Immaculate Conception is that Mary was conceived and born without sin ("immaculately conceived") from her mother (traditionally Anna). This is part of the Mary worship you mention, but it is more fundamental to why, in traditional Christian (especially Catholic) doctrine, Jesus was supposedly born without "original sin."

    Original sin is another Catholic doctrine that definitely ported over to Protestantism in the form of our having supposedly inherited the sin of Adam, so that we are sinners from birth and will go to hell unless we receive the vicarious atonement offered by Jesus Christ through his death and his blood.

    The irony of the Immaculate Conception is that if it were true, it would completely destroy the true salvific mission of Jesus Christ by depriving him of the faulty, finite human heredity from Mary so that he could engage the battle against the power of evil and hell that he came to fight on our behalf.

    Thanks again for a very thoughtful piece with some great Bible passages to support it!

  2. Hello Lee - I mainly posted this as I see those passages being used as "proof texts" for vicarious atonement. It stems from a misunderstanding of the spiritual meaning of blood. The Orthodox church is closest to the doctrine of the Divine Human, but their theology is obscured for the reasons you mentioned. In theological circles, I lost count of just how many theories there are on the explanation for the atonement.


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