Filipino Catholic Ruben Enaje reenacts the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday, in San Fernando, Philippines (OSV News photo/Lisa Marie David, Reuters).

As a foster youth, I disliked most adults. Later I realized it was because it felt like they didn’t like me. They referred to spending time with me as a “sacrifice.” Usually they were kind enough to say it with only their eyes. But sometimes I would talk back, roll my eyes, slam the door to my room, and various authority figures—my biological relatives and other intermittent caregivers—would get right up to my face and tell me how grateful I should be that somebody was willing to sacrifice their time to care for me—work nobody else wanted to do.

It was in this context that I was introduced to God. My late mother had raised me Buddhist, and I identified as such even when the state wrested me from her arms and placed me in a Southern Baptist children’s home. My caregivers taught me about a God who was angry with me for a crime I hadn’t committed but loved me enough to punish his own son for my sins. Of course, if I didn’t assent to this belief that God had killed his son for my sake, the salvific purchase of his sacrifice would be rendered null, and I’d end up in hell anyway. Like them, God was sacrificing for me and I had better appreciate it.

Andrew Rillera’s Lamb of the Free, a recently published book on the meaning of sacrifice in the Old Testament, throws this account into question. It’s the sort of biblical history I love reading, aimed at something much deeper than simply explicating the Levitical system for its own sake. The questions Rillera seeks to answer have great bearing on how we approach Christ’s sacrifice. Was it necessary because God had to punish someone for humankind’s sins? Or was it a completely free, radical act of solidarity with a humanity enslaved to death? Did it only redeem our sins or did it liberate us for something greater?

Rillera is honest about his intent. His aim is “ultimately to showcase the liberating message of the gospel as an act of resistance to other notions of ‘freedom’ on offer in the world as represented in the US national anthem.” Rillera is convinced that American Christianity’s foundation in “penal substitutionary atonement (PSA)”—the theory that Jesus suffered the punishment of God in humanity’s place—obscures the radical nature of the Cross and stains our approach to matters of justice today, especially those of mass incarceration and the plight of the poor. The book takes the form of a careful investigation of sacrifice in the Old Testament and the various images that New Testament authors invoke in describing what Jesus did on Calvary.

The idea that Christ died in our place is rooted in a confused understanding of Levitical sacrifice according to which atonement is accomplished through the ritual slaughter of a lamb or other animal who takes our place. God, it is thought, settles for the death of an animal rather than a human as recompense for humanity’s sins. Every lamb slaughtered, every pigeon whose throat is cut is a reminder: this could have been you if not for the love of God who spared you.

But this substitution theory of sacrifice is foreign to the Levitical system. Its logic not only fundamentally misunderstands the point of sacrifice but renders it effectively meaningless. First of all, for those sins listed in the Mosaic Law which call for either capital punishment or exile, “no sacrifice may be made to rectify the situation.” Sacrificing an animal does not wipe the slate clean. Secondly, animal blood doesn’t substitute for human blood. In fact, human blood defiles the sanctuary; hence, clinging to the altar after committing a terrible crime was a common means of acquiring asylum, since the blood from killing the criminal on the spot would pollute the sanctuary (Exodus 21:14). Finally, there is no Old Testament text that gives any theological or ritual meaning to the killing of the animal in itself. In fact, those who slaughter an animal outside the context of an offering to the Lord are guilty of bloodshed and must be cut off from the people (Leviticus 17:3–4).

The idea that Christ died in our place is rooted in a confused understanding of Levitical sacrifice.

For those of us raised with an image of a God who is demanding and angry with humanity, this will come as a surprising argument. Secular people often identify a kind of cognitive dissonance in the worship of the Christian God. Christians love the gift he has given us yet fear what he could have done or still might do. He is a God who is to be feared as much as loved. Our religion exhorts us to love one another at the point of a gun as it were; if we don’t, the God of Love becomes a God of Justice who will send us directly to hell.

These critiques never resonated with me, though for the wrong reasons. Until high school I didn’t view myself as someone worthy of love. I lived as someone who was merely tolerated because that is how I was treated. The God they preached—my Father in Heaven—was simply another angry adult in my life. As with many of the adults around me, it felt like God saved me out of a feeling of obligation—it was a sacrifice that was expected of him and nothing more. There was, therefore, nothing contradictory about a God who loved me yet, like every other adult, seemed to keep me at a distance and could at any moment turn into a threat.

Rillera’s historical account replaces the essentially negative understanding of sacrifice as payment for a debt with a theory of sacrifice based on life, not death. Our God is not a god of death, but of life (Matthew 22:32). The killing of an animal is equivalent to murder unless one reconceptualizes what happened through ritual, transforming the death of the animal into a “not-killing,” as Rillera puts it, and a presentation of life. Within the logic of Levitical sacrifice, death is impure because it is an expression of “human finitude,” in opposition to God’s infinity. Killing is only ritually necessary to access the blood of the animal, its life. What we do with the blood after killing an animal is the important part; it transforms the nature of the act from simple bloodshed into something holy.

Even more telling, the blood does not even have to be present physically. Leviticus offers substitutions, such as a pigeon for a lamb or even flour if the offerer cannot afford a pigeon (Leviticus 5:11–13). These permitted substitutes make it clear that sacrifice is not about blood itself but about both the individual and community taking responsibility to keep the sanctuary holy. In animal sacrifice a beast is not simply offered instead of a person; it is not a dead body used to pay a debt. Rather, the life-offering is a gift and an expression of personal responsibility. It is much more important that what is sacrificed is mine than that a life is taken. Rillera goes as far as to say that “it is not even proper to call sacrifice a ‘ritual death’ because the ritual depends on it not actually being comprehended as a death.... Sacrifice is a process by which to transform the mundane into a sacred gift.”


This reappraisal of sacrifice forms the foundation for one of Rillera’s most novel insights: that sacrifice is from the beginning not merely man’s gift to God, but God’s gift to man. We have this idea that beholding God in the sanctuary while impure will melt our faces off like we’re in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. But that cartoonish image misses the beautiful reality behind sanctity. Within the Levitical system, stepping away from those aspects of our humanity most symbolic of our finitude—sex and death—allows us to align more closely with his infinitude while remaining flesh and bone. “The reason why a person needs to be in a state of ritual purity to access the sanctuary is because it symbolizes becoming like God, who is infinite...specifically by having one’s body ritually free from those aspects associated with [our mortality].”

Sacrifice is from the beginning not merely man’s gift to God, but God’s gift to man.

Approaching the Cross with this notion of sacrifice as man’s gift to God from God deepens the mystery of Calvary. It removes the scriptural basis of PSA from under its feet. Christ did not sacrifice himself because it was either him or us; he sacrificed himself out of solidarity with our plight, because he wanted to give us the means to become like God.

The life of Jesus becomes the life of Israel, its presentation to God. Christ is not the “substitute” for Israel but rather its past, present, and future. In solidarity, he shares its curse, its destruction, and death, just as the prophets do. But the crucial distinction between the prophets and Jesus is that because Jesus is God, he is a being whose life purifies and defeats impurity. His death allows him to “make direct contact with the consequences of moral impurity and exhaust them... on analogy to how he is able to make direct contact with ritual impurity and thereby heal it by the contagious holiness of his very being.”

Rillera argues that the Gospel writers most commonly compare Jesus’ death to so-called “well-being” sacrifices, not sacrifices of atonement. Well-being sacrifices, of which the Passover celebration is the most prominent example, are sacrifices that give thanks to God both for what he’s done and what he is going to do. The Last Supper is also a well-being sacrifice, a celebration both of what God has done (the holy life that Jesus has led) and what God shall soon do (his resurrection). This is why the sacrificial imagery employed most frequently by Paul to describe Christ’s sacrifice isn’t atonement, but well-being. They are the only sacrifices in which offerers actually eat the food they’ve offered up. It’s why Jesus commands us to eat of his body during the Last Supper. The meal is an expression of a wider conviction that the followers of Christ must imitate him—live and die in him—even to the point of eating his flesh.

Rillera’s historical analysis of sacrificial imagery and the Levitical system is excellent, yet some of the implications of this alternative understanding of the Cross are left undrawn. Most importantly, Rillera doesn’t say as much as he could about how the conception of freedom founded on a solidarity-based Christology would differ from the freedom implied by PSA, or from a common understanding of “American” freedom.

In closing, let me take up one implication of solidarity-based Christological freedom. By reframing Christ’s sacrifice in terms of a positive account of God’s life, Rillera also invites us to reconsider who God is. The Cross doesn’t change God’s mind about us. From the very beginning, he has been continually forgiving us. Christ is sacrificed not so we can be forgiven but to celebrate humanity’s cosmic return to the fold. The Father’s love and forgiveness were never predicated on the Cross. In the same way, the father of the Prodigal Son sacrifices a fattened calf in celebration of his son’s return, not in retribution. Both the Cross and the calf are gifts to render visible the love that was always present.

Christ, in both death and resurrection, is who we are destined to become at the end of all things. His sacrifice reveals the loving end toward which we are all destined—a sacrifice that does not entail the loss of life, but its ultimate affirmation and sanctification. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection recapitulates the story of humanity and reveals that it has a happy ending: the renewal and resurrection of humanity in and through Christ. Knowledge of these happy tidings frees us to become truly human and joyfully sacrifice ourselves to bring justice for our brothers and sisters—from the homeless person on the street corner to the child in Gaza praying for the bombs to stop dropping.  The human and the divine truly meet only in Christ’s crucifixion and in our own decision to empty ourselves for others.

Beyond its political and social implications, Rillera’s study led me to reflect on the adults in my life who really did sacrifice something for my sake. I don’t mean those who simply gave up their time out of obligation, but those who sacrificed in the spirit of joy. To truly sacrifice involved dedicating their lives with joy to the children who needed someone like them most. Sacrifice can only be genuine when it is done joyfully and out of solidarity and love for others, not as the mere payment of a debt. Their sacrifice led me out of my self-imposed introversion to sacrifice my pride and freely love others, even if it meant sometimes getting hurt. This is what God did for us, his children. Christ’s sacrifice doesn’t obligate us to him against our will, but irresistibly draws us out of ourselves and into him (John 12:32).

Rillera furnishes the historical and exegetical material to convincingly argue that Levitical sacrifice, the portent of Jesus’s ultimate sacrifice, is one of love that called on the Israelites to transcend their finitude and become something greater than themselves. In the same way, the Gospel we preach today must be one of solidarity, not substitution or debt. To truly become Christ, to enter union with God, we must sanctify ourselves. To sanctify, we must sacrifice.

Lamb of the Free
Recovering the Varied Sacrificial Understandings of Jesus’s Death
Andrew Remington Rillera
Cascade Books
$39 | 356 pp.

Julian Assele is an RCIA coordinator living in Chicago. He volunteers at Open Books.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.