While reading John Dominic Crossan’s God and Empire I came across an enlightening discussion of the flaws in the standard theology of substitutionary atonement. Crossan explains that a sacrifice was a way of restoring good relations with God using the two basic ways humans have always restored good relationships with each other, through gifts and shared meals. Etymologically the word sacrifice comes from the latin sacer (sacred) facere (to make) and means to make sacred.
The basic problem with substitutionary atonement is that it confuses sacrifice, substitution, and suffering. Animal sacrifice was not practiced with the animal suffering horribly, nor was the animal a substitution for the deserved suffering of the human being. It was instead an animal set apart and made sacred by offering it to God.
Crossan goes on to offer an analogy that I will reproduce at length:
Think about how we ordinarily use the term ‘sacrifice’ today. A building is on fire, a child is trapped upstairs, and the firefighter who rushes in to save him manages to drop the child safely to the net below. Then the roof collapses and kills the fire fighter. The next day the local paper bears the headline “Firefighter Sacrifices Her Life.” We are not ancients but moderns, and yet that is still an absolutely acceptable statement. On the one hand, all human life and all human death are sacred. on the other, that firefighter has made her own death peculiarly, especially, emphatically sacred by giving her life up to save the life of another. So far so good. Now imagine if somebody confused sacrifice with suffering and denied that the firefighter had made a sacrifice because she died instantly and without intolerable suffering. Or imagine if somebody confused sacrifice with substitution and said that God wanted somebody dead that day and accepted the firefighter in lieu of the child. And worst of all, imagine that somebody brought together sacrifice, suffering, and substitution by claiming that the firefighter had to die in agony as atonement for the sins of the child’s parents. That theology would be a crime against divinity.