Sacrifice and Atonement

Sacrifice and Atonement

Are you uncomfortable with the idea that God required a sacrificial payment before there could be forgiveness? Have the biblical metaphors for the death of Christ been taken too literally by some Christians? Do people think that God requires suffering? If any of these questions can be answered “yes,” then the time is right for a book entitled Sacrifice and Atonement: Psychological Motives and Biblical Patterns.

New Testament atonement metaphors build upon the sacrificial cult. The first two chapters of this book examine purification, compensation, and redemption in Hebrew sacrifice. Purification was the primary atonement idea, but there was also a concept of atonement as compensation or payment. For some people, sacrifice became a way of inducing God to show favor. This notion is criticized by prophets such as Micah and Amos, and Psalms such as 40, 50, 51, and 69.
In the third chapter I examine psychological theories that can shed light on the function of atonement thinking. Erik Erikson wrote about children seeking to make atonement to the parent, to win back the parent’s love. Attachment Theory observes that children develop “ambivalent attachment” to a parent who is inconsistent, moody, or rejecting. Such children experience chronic uncertainty about parental love. Some atonement theories echo childhood strategies for placating moody parents.

We need to learn to trust God, as Jesus taught and as he demonstrated. Too often we waver between trust and suspicion, between love and fear, in our attitude toward God. Atonement doctrines are often based on a fear of God. Even theology that talks about the love of God can be infected by mistrust, in contrast to Jesus’ own trust-centered teachings.

If we are to love God with all our minds, we need to examine our images of salvation. Jesus used images as natural as a loaf of bread or the offer of a cup of water (Matt 7:9; 10:42).

My hope is that this book will help people re-examine their beliefs, with a view to deepening their relationships with Jesus, God, and with their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Sacrifice and Atonement is published by Fortress Press, and can be purchased from the discounted distributors ($28) or


Stephen M. Finlan

Stephen Finlan is pastor of First Congregational Church of Plainfield, CT, and author of numerous books. Visit his website at

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