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God Squad: Surrogate atonement as a path to salvation

Are there scriptures in the Torah that support your view that surrogate atonement is incorrect? I thought animal sacrifices were classic examples of surrogate atonement. Also, when God killed an animal so He could clothe Adam and Eve after their fall in the Garden of Eden, that was an example of innocent blood being shed to cover sin. If you hold to your view, how can any person atone for sins?

- A., via e-mail

Thanks for your question, which allows me to answer again about the role sacrifice plays in atonement.

In the biblical period, Jews offered animal sacrifices and sacrifices of incense-infused barley cakes that were burned in fire pans holding hot coals. This was done by Jewish priests using rituals that we cannot reconstruct but which are generally described throughout the Torah, particularly in the Books of Leviticus and Numbers.

The sacrifices of the Bible were offered not only to atone for sins but also as freewill offerings to celebrate joyous events, and as holiday offerings for the three biblical pilgrim festivals of Passover, Shavuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot (Tabernacles). Each of these three holidays was called, in Hebrew, a hag. The Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca called the Hajj takes it name from this word.

Some theologians consider such animal sacrifices spiritually primitive, and, in general, I agree with them. Although animal sacrifice is arguably the oldest religious ritual on Earth, it's based upon a very dubious belief - that the death of an animal can correct moral failings.

When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 of the Common Era, all sacrifices in Judaism were ended because there was no place to offer them, and most of the priests had been killed. I'm not happy about the carnage, but I am happy with the result. The leaders who took over the care and feeding of Judaism after the Roman conquest were no longer the priests but the rabbis.

The rabbis introduced a daring change in Jewish worship - replacing every sacrifice with a prayer from a newly created prayer book. The prayer times were the same times as the sacrifice times, but no blood was spilled. The synagogue replaced the temple, rabbis replaced the priests, and the teachings in the Talmud supplemented (one could also say replaced) many, though not all, biblical rituals.

This change was made necessary by historical events but had enormous impact on Judaism and the emerging religion of Christianity. Surrogate atonement through animal sacrifice was basically abandoned in favor of the direct and ethically superior command of confession and personal apology to anyone you had hurt.

Sins were human acts that needed to be fixed by human actions, inspired by God's commands to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Christianity, at this time, reached back to the powerful images of biblical sacrifice, by teaching, first of all, that not all sin is an act. Original sin is a universal human condition, though it began with an act of disobedience by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The only act strong enough to erase the taint of original sin was the sacrificial death of Jesus, the incarnate God.

This belief didn't connect with most Jews (or Muslims later on), who didn't believe in the doctrine of original sin or surrogate atonement through blood sacrifices. Christianity immortalized Jesus' sacrifice in the Eucharist, which allowed all believers to participate in this event. As for Judaism, and later Islam, prayers and personal atonement formed the foundation for post-biblical rabbinic Judaism and Islam until today.

Finally, theological differences about surrogate atonement should not be overdrawn. In my opinion, all religions retain some belief in surrogate atonement. The central issue is whether we can achieve salvation on our own, and I agree with scripture and tradition: This is not possible for any person of faith.

Without the teachings of the Torah, I could never find my way to a life of spiritual integrity and wholeness, so in some ways, the Torah is my surrogate for salvation. It does for me what I can't do for myself.

In Christianity, without Jesus and his surrogate atonement through his death and resurrection, every Christian would be lost to sin and despair. In Islam, without the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, Muslims could not find true submission to Allah and a life of peace.

Every great religion gives us surrogates to help teach and inspire us to a better life and eternal salvation.

The ways we get help vary from faith to faith, but the notion that some religions believe in surrogate atonement and others do not is a distinction that, although partly true, is so overstated that it obscures the central truth of all faith - that we need help to find our way.

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