The Night I Stopped Believing in Substitutionary Blood Atonement

by Martin Thielen

March 29, 2022

Almost two decades ago, during a combined Holy Thursday/Good Friday worship service, I told a true story from the Holocaust. The story involved a Polish army sergeant named Franciszek Gajowniczek and a Franciscan priest named Maximilian Kolbe.

The Saint of Auschwitz

In February 1941, the Nazis incarcerated Maximilian Kolbe at Auschwitz. In spite of the brutality of the infamous concentration camp, Father Kolbe lived out the spirit of Jesus. He shared his food, gave up his bunk, and prayed for his captors. He soon earned the nickname “the Saint of Auschwitz.”

In July of that same year a prisoner escaped from the camp. The policy at Auschwitz was to kill ten prisoners for every one who escaped. The next morning, guards gathered the prisoners into the courtyard. The commander randomly selected ten names from the roll book. Everyone knew if they heard their name called it meant a death sentence.

The commander began calling the ten names. At each selection another prisoner stepped forward to fill the sinister quota. The tenth name called was Franciszek Gajowniczek. Upon hearing his name, the condemned Gajowniczek began to sob. “My wife and my children,” he wept.

The guards heard movement among the prisoners. They raised their rifles. The dogs tensed, anticipating a command to attack. A prisoner pushed his way to the front. It was the priest, Maximilian Kolbe. He showed no fear on his face, no hesitancy in his step. The guard shouted at him to stop or be shot. “I want to talk to the commander,” he said calmly. Father Kolbe stopped a few paces from the commander, removed his hat, and looked the German officer in the eye.

“Herr Commandant, I wish to make a request. I want to die in the place of this prisoner.” He then pointed at the sobbing Gajowniczek. “I have no wife and children. Besides, I am old and not good for anything. He’s in better condition.” “Who are you?” the officer asked. “A Catholic priest.” The entire crowd was stunned; the commandant, uncharacteristically speechless. After a moment, he barked, “Request granted.”

Franciszek Gajowniczek later said, “Prisoners were never allowed to speak. So I could only thank him with my eyes. I could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it. I, the condemned, was to live; and someone else willingly and voluntarily offered up his life for me, a complete stranger.”

Gajowniczek survived the Holocaust. After the war he made his way back to his hometown in Poland. In his backyard he placed a plaque, one he carved with his own hands. The plague reads, “A tribute to Maximillian Kolbe—the man who died so I could live.” (Max Lucado, Six Hours One Friday, Portland: Multnomah, 1989, pp. 66–68).

After the story I briefly compared Maximillian Kolbe’s sacrifice to Jesus’s death on the cross. “Like the priest,” I said, “Jesus died in our place, to pay the price for our sin.” We sang the old hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Then we observed Holy Communion. Although the service went well, I felt uncomfortable.

Where is God in This Story?

After the service I went to my office to put away my clerical robe. Although I didn’t fully understand why, my feelings of discomfort grew in intensity. I sat at my desk and reviewed the worship service in my mind, especially the story about the priest. It seemed a fitting metaphor of Christ’s sacrificial atoning death on our behalf. But still something felt wrong. The story nagged at me. For years I had quietly struggled with atonement theology—the belief that Jesus died in our place to pay the punishment for our sins. But mostly I ignored my reservations. After all, substitutionary blood atonement stood at the core of Christian orthodoxy, at least in my religious tradition. Who was I to question it? But tonight the struggle came to a head.

Still sitting at my desk, I again mulled over the Holocaust priest story. I asked myself, “In this metaphor, who is the God figure?” God was not represented by the loving priest. Instead, Maximillian Kolbe represented Jesus, who lovingly and willingly gave up his life. So I asked myself again, “Where is God in this story?” And then, in a chilling moment of horrifying awareness, I realized who the God figure actually was.

In my metaphorical usage of this story, God the Father was represented by the Nazi commander at Auschwitz who demanded blood, suffering, and death for behavior he deemed unacceptable. That realization stunned me. I finally realized that behind the all-pervasive theology, liturgies, prayers, songs, and hymns of Christendom that Jesus “died for our sins” stood a bloodthirsty, wrathful, and vengeful deity who required a pound of flesh to pay the price for human sin.

That, of course, is the exact opposite of the spirit of Jesus. As the Roman soldiers brutally executed him on the cross, he didn’t pray, “Father, avenge me.” Instead, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.” As I pondered this truth, I wondered, How can this disturbing image of a vindictive God be reconciled with Jesus’s belief in an all-loving, all-merciful, and all-forgiving God? The answer was stunningly clear. It can’t.

That’s the night I stopped believing in substitutionary blood atonement. That’s the night I decided to never again sing, “There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins; / And sinners, plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains.” That’s the night I rejected substitutionary atonement theology once and for all.

Although the metaphor of blood atonement made sense to an ancient world that practiced animal sacrifice, it’s theologically offensive in the modern era to think God required a bloody sacrifice of his Son in order to forgive humanity. That’s divine child abuse, not divine justice or love. How do you love, worship, and serve such a violent, ruthless, and vengeful God? It’s past time for twenty-first-century Christians to reject this crude and barbaric theology.

Executing God

It’s not possible to adequately discuss this complex topic in a brief post. If you would like to explore this important subject more thoroughly, including New Testament teachings about Jesus’s death, I recommend that you read Sharon Baker’s excellent book, Executing God: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about Salvation and the Cross. Two quotes from chapter 1 follow:

  • “Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” This theologically loaded hymn has been a familiar and comforting part of our worship all our lives. And as we sing we think of the blood of Jesus that washes away our sin, that provides the payment for our forgiveness, we inadvertently put forth an image of God as violent and retributive, who cannot forgive sin without recompense of some sort. In this case, the recompense happens to be the horrific death of an innocent man.
  • We believe that God required Jesus to hang on the cross, suspended in midair, and die a sacrificial, violent death so we could escape the divine consequence; imprisonment in a place of eternal violence. In other words, we believe in a violent God of love. (Sharon Baker, Executing God, Louisville: WJK, 2013, pp. 3, 9).

Sharon Baker is correct. Traditional “power in the blood” atonement theology is a sub-Christian concept that needs to be discarded. However, jettisoning blood atonement doesn’t mean one has to discard the cross of Jesus. Instead, we can replace substitutionary atonement with a far better understanding of the cross: a theology of the crucified God.

The Crucified God

The following year at our Holy Thursday/Good Friday service, I didn’t talk about a God who suffers for us (substitutionary atonement). Instead, I spoke about a God who suffers with us. I noted that the cross of Jesus tells us that God is a crucified God. Although God does not take away our suffering, God enters into our pain and shares it with us. That’s a far better theology of the cross than substitutionary blood atonement and far more meaningful. During that service, like the year before, I told my congregation a true story. This one involved a man named David.

Years ago, David’s fourteen-year-old son Rob died in a tragic accident. Several days after the funeral, David, in agonizing grief, drove to a Roman Catholic bookstore. There he purchased a wooden crucifix, depicting Jesus’s suffering on the cross. David drove home, opened his toolbox, and grabbed a hammer and nail. He then walked to the kitchen and hammered the crucifix to the wall, right above his son’s empty chair at the dinner table.

Every evening, when he stared at Rob’s empty chair, David lifted his eyes to the crucifix and remembered that God, like him, had suffered great grief. The crucifix did not explain his son’s death. Nor did it take away the pain of that death. But knowing that God suffered with him allowed David to survive that horrible time of pain and grief. Many years later, that crucifix still hangs on David’s wall. It reminds him that the God of the cross is always with him, even in his deepest suffering.


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