Practical Issues > Things to do > Religion and Animals

Animal Sacrifice and Liberation:
Implications of the Atonement

by Rev. Rebecca

In ancient religious traditions, animal sacrifice was commonplace and a part of essentially every known culture to appease "the gods." Animal sacrifice still occurs in some parts of our world, particularly in tribal religions such as animism, but for most modern people living in the West, animal sacrifice seems far removed and difficult to understand. In ancient times, people believed that their sin could only be “atoned” for (that is, made "right" or “satisfied”) by sacrificing innocent animals to their god(s). Animals were the "scapegoats" for the sins of the people and bore the brunt of the evil and fear of humankind.

I do not believe God ever intended this or was satisfied with such a system, but it was a widely spread cultural practice and God tends to work from within a culture rather than impose on it from outside. However, at times in Scripture the message from God is clear that this was not God’s intention, "I desire mercy not sacrifice!" (Hosea 6:6) and Psalm 51:16-17 "For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart; These, O God, You will not despise." The Judeo-Christian God, unlike the multitude of pagan gods, was not “bloodthirsty.” “Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and make thanksgiving your sacrifice to the Most High” (Psalm 50:13-14).

However, people continued doing what they were used to doing and killing animals in an attempt to atone for their sins. Then finally Jesus came along. Apparently Jesus did not approve of the sacrificial system of the Temple. In fact, he became very angry and drove everyone out of the Temple who had been selling animals due to be sacrificed for the Passover (John 2:13-22). The Scriptures also never record Jesus as participating in the animal sacrifice at the Temple, although the custom at the time required it. As the author of Hebrews writes:

For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure (10:4-6).

So instead, on the night of the Passover, when the Jewish people were celebrating the sacrificing of the paschal lamb, Jesus began to talk about his own body and blood being shed and given up for the sins of the world. “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28). Within hours Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified.

Jesus’ disciples quickly made sense of the crucifixion, this highly symbolic and transformative act: Jesus had died at Passover in place of the sacrificial lamb. Jesus became, literally, the Paschal Lamb, the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." The Greek word for “world” used in this Scripture is “cosmos,” and it includes the entire world, all creatures great and small. Applying the belief that was held about atonement, it was understood that Jesus died, just as the sacrificial animals used to, on behalf of the world’s sins.

Christians understand Isaiah 53:7-8 to refer to Jesus: "He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so He opened not His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?"

It is painful to imagine how much Jesus may have identified with the millions of animals who had been lead to slaughter before him. Jesus was innocent, just as the sacrificial animals had been, because he was perfect, without sin, and the Son of God. But Jesus’ action put an end to the system of animal sacrifice once and for all. Jesus' life and death revealed the flaws of the animal sacrificial system. God revealed to humanity that we need not kill innocent animals because “God himself would provide the sacrifice” in form of Jesus, God incarnate. (Genesis 22:8). This is good news for humanity! It is also good news for all creation and for God’s innocent creatures, the animals. Like Jesus, they had been abused, exploited, and killed by humanity.

Animals have been victims of humanity’s fears and sin since the beginning of time. Today we engage in our own form of animal sacrifice. We continue to pin our fears and sins upon innocent animals in contexts such as our factory farms, sport hunting, slaughterhouses, and laboratories. We abuse, exploit, and kill animals every day for our selfish purposes. We justify our actions, saying eating meat will make us strong and healthy when we have evidence to the contrary. We hunt and kill for sport, believing this will prove our prowess and courage. Meat, fur, purebred animals, and leather are all signs of wealth and prosperity and cause us to feel “good” about ourselves by playing into worldly standards of success. We experiment on animals, driven by our fear of death and disease, because animals are helpless to resist. We dominate and exploit the created world in order to prove our power over it and to help us feel in control. Animals continue to bear the sins of humankind in all its tragic forms. Their suffering never seems to cease even though Jesus came to seek an end to suffering on earth.

Jesus died to bring us into a new reality. The cross is redemption for humanity and it is redemption for all God’s creatures. We must no longer sacrifice animals for our own purposes. We must no longer pin our fears and sin upon the innocent animals of God. We must live in the reality of the redemption that Christ won for us on the cross and live at peace with all God’s creation, praying for a complete restoration of God’s kingdom, where there is no violence, no killing, and where “the lion lies down with the lamb” (Isaiah 11:6).

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us.