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#583 Sacrifice and Atonement

June 17, 2018

Hi Dr. Craig !

I am Luca, from Belgium (I already sent you a message a couple of weeks ago in regards to cosmology, and I would like to thank you for your answer). This time, my question regards cleanness and uncleanness that we find in the book of Levitics for example. I really have difficulties with understanding this concept.

Purification : How can it be that the one thing that makes you unclean (blood, dead body, etc.), is also the thing that makes you clean (blood of sacrifices) ?

Expiation : Why offer a sacrifice of expiation if uncleanness is not a sin ?

Also, it seems that uncleanness cannot be in the presence of God without having some important consequence => the death of the unclean person who has soiled the sanctuary of God. (Leviticus 15.31)

But from this, I cannot understand how it was working with Christ ! In fact, He was unclean by his birth, and also with the contact with sick people and even dead people like Lazarus, but the Bible says that God was fully in Him ... Wasn't Christ ritually unclean and so also in need to be expiated ? But by what ? Animal sacrifices ? I thought there were only a picture of the work of Christ, so how can they expiate the Messiah ? Moreover, if Christ was physically impur, does his sacrifice shouldn't be rejected by God ?

I don't know if I am enough clear in my questions for you to understand the problems that I have. Let me know about all this, waiting hopefully for an help from you that I consider an example for us Christians. Thank you !



Dr. craig’s response


Had it not been for my recent study of the atonement of Christ, Luca, yours is a question that would scarcely have interested me. I ask readers who feel similarly to bear with me while I address what is, in fact, a most interesting situation.

1. “How can it be that the one thing that makes you unclean (blood, dead body, etc.), is also the thing that makes you clean (blood of sacrifices)?”  This is a central paradox in the sacrificial system in the Old Testament. Coming into contact with a dead body or blood makes a person ritually unclean. Thus, the very act of sacrifice would seem to make the offerer and officiating priest unclean rather than clean. I have even heard one Old Testament scholar actually affirm this conclusion and infer that people need cleansing from the act of offering sacrifice, which seems crazy.

It seems to me that what must have made sacrifice the exception to the rule for ancient Israelites is that the blood of the sacrificial animal represents its life, which is not unclean and is offered to God. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life” (Lev 17.11). It is the life of the animal that is offered to God. By the hand-laying ritual which preceded every animal sacrifice, the offerer symbolically identifies with the animal, which suffers the fate that the offerer deserves. The animal’s life is given in place of the offerer’s life. (A caution: those who press these sorts of a priori arguments are operating on the non-trivial assumption that these ancient ritual practices were through-and-through logically consistent.)

2. “Why offer a sacrifice of expiation if uncleanness is not a sin?”  You’re correct that ritual uncleanness is not the same as sin. But the sacrifices were offered to remove both ritual impurity and sin. Ancient Judaism was deeply shaped by the distinction between clean and unclean. Just think of its elaborate food laws! This distinction pervaded all of life and served, I think, to drive home the holiness of God in the minds of the people. The sacrificial system facilitated the juxtaposition of a holy God with people who were both ritually impure and sinful. Something that was morally neutral and so not a sin, such as menstruation, could render a person ritually unclean and so needy of sacrificial cleansing.

3. “Wasn't Christ ritually unclean and so also in need to be expiated?”  It was precisely this conviction that drove the Jewish religious leaders’ opposition to Jesus. In particular, his practice of table fellowship with the immoral and unclean, his welcoming prostitutes and Roman collaborators, was deeply offensive to the Jewish authorities. By their standards one can see why. But in Jesus’ view, he was not defiled by contact with such people but, quite the opposite, conveyed to them God’s pardon and cleansing. Theologically speaking, Christ’s divinity overpowered and expelled sin and impurity.  This is a wonderful demonstration of his deity.

So obviously, the remainder of your concerns don’t apply. Christ, not being defiled, had no need to offer sacrifice for expiation of either sin or impurity.

- William Lane Craig