Below are things I have wrestled with. They are written earnestly, because I care & not for controversy.
Jacob Wrestled an Angel
Jacob wrestled an angelic being and would not let the man go until the man blessed him, which the man did. Jacob was injured but received his blessing. This refers to an event over 3,000 years ago, but remains as an episode well worth reading (Genesis 32). It encourages us to wrestle with God, who loves the earnest, even if troubled, follower. When Nathaniel was told the Messiah had been discovered and that he came from Nazareth, Nathaniel responded rhetorically: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Soon he met Jesus, who not only knew what he had said (or at least told him the exact tree under which he sat when he said it), but affirmed him: “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!”
Wrestling With: The Blood of Christ
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The Blood of Christ is inescapable as both a physical substance and a concept in the New Testament.
As a substance, we read that in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus struggled in agony, and that “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (is this metaphor or was the sweat imbued with blood from overwhelming stress)? Then with the crucifixion itself, the clearly literal drops were blood, from both the nails in his hands and feet and the sword that pierced his side after he died.
This shedding of blood occurred during the Passover, and this ties it inescapably to the atoning value of blood in the Old Testament where over and over again, blood must be shed to atone for the people’s sins. As Jacob Milgrom put it, blood functioned as the “ritual detergent” among the Jews. It is this atoning aspect of blood that is the concept, and it is the concept with which I wrestle.
We are told, first in Leviticus 17 and again in Hebrews 9 that “without the sheddding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin.” In what way is there no forgiveness without the shedding of blood? If you see no difficulties with the implications, then don’t read this post—it’s for those who struggle.
For many Christians the blood of Christ, as a concept, assures them that they are forgiven completely, irrevocably, authoritatively. The concept is copacetic, working well psychologically (whew, no guilt) and theologically (wow, if only Christ’s blood brings forgiveness, then Christ is essential, no arguing about that now…he’s the ultimate, final sacrifice).
While I agree with the relief of being totally forgiven and with the recognition of the unsurpassed greatness of Christ, I wrestle with the relationship between forgiveness and bloodshed. During his years of public ministry, Jesus was full of forgiveness (think of being crucified and praying “forgive them…”). He never said, “When I shed my blood for you then you’ll really be forgiven.” No, he said, “Your sins are forgiven.”
On one occasion, that forgiveness was followed by scandal: “…some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?'” (Mark 2). Even the complaint by the teachers of the law (God alone can forgive sins) takes no recourse to the requirement for shed blood.
At this point, let me make clear I do not doubt the importance of Jesus’ death. By becoming a human and willingly dying, his death brought to a representative end the fallen race that we know as humanity. He brought the spiritually dead lineage from Adam to death so that he could start a new, spiritual race with his resurrection. With my whole heart I believe. My struggle is with the concept that God needs blood to be shed in order to forgive.
I want to honor anyone who suffers for me, perhaps especially anyone who sheds blood for me. So much more do I want to honor the Son of Man, Jesus, who was nailed to the cross for me. He actually was nailed to the cross because he defied religious authorities and chose to suffer rather than call on angels to rescue him. In some way, he went through this suffering to redeem humanity. I belong to humanity, so he died in part, howsoever small, for me. I don’t have to know how something works to appreciate it.
Where I struggle is with the assertion that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Leviticus 17:11, Hebrews 9:22). This is a celebrated statement among Christians, now and in the past. But it can be (and is) used to imply that the Father cannot forgive without first seeing something die. That something can be an animal sacrifice (Leviticus) or the sacrifice of his son (Hebrews). I’m troubled because I’ve been redeemed, that is, because the logos lives within me—I have to know something is moral in order to appreciate it.
I have cried out for guidance. It seems a terribly narrow path: on one side, the possibility of discounting the role of the blood of Jesus in redemption; on the other, the possibility of seeing God the Father as a being who cannot simply forgive but must have his son’s blood shed in order to forgive, reducing this Father to the level of dozens of pagan “deities” for whom humans have been sacrificed.
Most Christians say it is because God is so just, so holy, that he needs to have a death in order to forgive. I doubt they actually are thinking about what they are saying—not certainly thinking about what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. When he says for us to be perfect, he refers to his Father who blesses the just and the unjust. As James put it, “Mercy triumphs over justice” (James 2:13), so playing the justice/holiness card to justify the need for a victim simply doesn’t work.
Think about it: Jesus was holy and yet he had no difficulty coming close to and touching the unholy people he encountered. His love was sufficient apart from the shedding of blood. The blood was a result, not a cause for that love. A sinful person may have trouble getting close to a holy being (as Peter did), but a truly holy being has no problem getting close to a sinful person.
But I’m not satisfied by ignoring the attention the New Testament puts on the blood of Jesus. It certainly means more and does more than I realize…yet it cannot mean what many Christians say—not if the rest of the Gospel is to remain intact. Jesus said both, “If you see me, you’ve seen my father,” and “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”
The blood of Christ, then, has a paradoxical place in my mind: it is more important than I realize and yet in no way suggests that our Father and his son lack the virtue that Jesus commanded all of us to practice.
Here, for now, I end with what C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity (Book 2, Chapter 4):
The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work. . . . Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. . . . [The various churches] will all agree that the thing itself is infinitely more important than any explanations that theologians have produced. I think they would probably admit that no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality. . . . A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.
First published 2023. Last revision: Feb. 10, 2024.
Wrestling With: The Wrath of God
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The Wrath of God cannot be ignored in both the Old and New Testaments. The term bothers me because…who wants his father to be wrathful? But also because I suspect “wrath” has been weaponized to protect the guilty and condemn the vulnerable. When the woman caught in adultery was about to get stoned, all her righteous accusers no doubt considered themselves instruments of God’s wrath.
For now I’ll quote from my post on Isaiah:
A thought that keeps me sane when I read about the wrath of God:
We see statements such as this, “For they would not follow his ways; they did not obey his law. So he poured out on them his burning anger, the violence of war. It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand; it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart” (Isaiah 42). This is contrary to the promises that God will redeem people who have done ill:
“Come now, let us settle the matter,”
says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool. (Isaiah 1)
Even in this passage a threat follows, but it is in the passive voice (i.e. an unspecified agent), unlike the passage from Isaiah 42, where it’s “his burning anger.” The threat in Isaiah 1 that follows the beautiful “white as snow” promise is that if the people resist and rebel against God’s will, they will be “devoured by the sword.” Note, it does not say, “his” or “my” sword. Anyone who disobeys even the laws of nature (let alone supernatural guidance) will suffer consequences. If one doesn’t allow God’s protection, one becomes immediately vulnerable to harm, living as we do, among a violent species.
If all I had were those two passages, the violence of God would remain ambiguous. However, the threat of war and destruction is contrary to Jesus who did not break a bruised reed or smother a smoldering wick (Isaiah 42 and Matthew 12).
Once I heard that the prophets such as Isaiah did not have a way to say God “allowed” something. Consequently, he is described as “causing” evil/violence, instead of “allowing” it. This distinction is useful whenever I encounter wrath in the Bible. Destruction may feel like God’s punishment, but it behaves like the force of either our selfishness or that of someone else falling on us with grave consequences.
Interpreting “wrath” as the absence of God prevents us from seeing God as alternately healing and destructive. It also prevents us from seeing Jesus as the kinder person of the Trinity. What it means is that our species not only is violent at times but is capable of vanquishing God from human affairs—and that, my friends, is the wrath of God.
And, yet, I struggle. I have not talked about every instance of wrath, and there are still questions.
First published 2023. Last revision: Feb. 10, 2024.