A common question I get from Muslims and atheists is “Since God is all-powerful why can’t he just forgive sins without sacrifices? Why is a sacrifice needed?” The common denominator between these 2 groups is that they bring in their preconceived notions of who they believe God is (or the notion of a god), who they believe the God of the Bible is, and what they believe the Bible says about God. It happens to the best of us but while seeking answers to our questions, we should do our best to take those filters off and approach the answer we receive with an open mind. To properly explain this question, we’ll need to look at what happened in the Garden of Eden, the consequences of Adam and Eve’s actions, and God’s solution to the “problem” they caused.
Many people already know the story of Adam and Eve; the first 2 humans God created and placed in the Garden of Eden. They had a direct relationship with God and everything was perfect and as it should be, but God also gave them an important command. He told them not to eat from the fruit of the tree of good and evil or else they’d die (this being spiritual and physical death), “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17). They were tempted by satan and disobeyed God’s command (Genesis 3:1-13). Once they ate the fruit, they were cursed, sin and death entered the world, and their relationship with God was broken; humanity fell, but God gave them a solution to the problem would come later (Genesis 3:15).
If you don’t really understand the meaning behind Genesis 3:15 or the importance of it, I’d recommend reading my article Genesis 6: The Coming Messiah (Part 4) to gain a better familiarity.
The Law and Sacrifices
After Adam and Eve disobeyed God and were sent out of the Garden, we fast forward to Moses’ time when the laws are first given to the Israelites, God’s chosen people. God asks them to follow him and his covenant. Through Moses, he tells them how he will bless them and what they mean to him. However, all these blessings will only come to them IF they follow him and heed his commandments. Thus, the law was delivered to the people of which they readily agreed to (Exodus 19:7-8, Exodus 24:1-8). However, from the beginning this was an impossible task. By agreeing on the conditions God gave them, they agreed to live by God’s standards which is too high for any human to bear. This is known as the “curse of the law” (Deuteronomy 27:26, Galations 3:10-13). The law itself is not a curse but not being able to fulfill it brings a curse upon the individual.
Some of the laws they were given regarded animal sacrifices which were needed to atone for sins, “And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission” (Hebrews 9:22). Animals are seen as “innocent” and “blameless” so they served to atone for mankind’s sins and transgressions. We can see an example of this sacrificial system in Leviticus 16 with Aaron,
- “So he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins; and so he shall do for the tabernacle of meeting which remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness. There shall be no man in the tabernacle of meeting when he goes in to make atonement in the Holy Place, until he comes out, that he may make atonement for himself, for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel. And he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord, and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. Then he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, cleanse it, and consecrate it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel.” (Leviticus 16:16-19)
- “This shall be a statute forever for you…For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord.” (Leviticus 16:29-30)
However this method wasn’t a perfect one and even God grew tired of it eventually because mankind would sin, sacrifice an animal, and continue in their corrupt ways, “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?” Says the Lord. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams And the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
Or of lambs or goats…Bring no more futile sacrifices…Your hands are full of blood. “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes.” (Isaiah 1:11, 13, 15-16). They weren’t truly repentant nor did they care to seek the Lord but rather reveled in their depravity. They also missed the point that they couldn’t fulfill the law on their own and that this sacrificial system was meant to point to an even better, perfect sacrifice, “For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:1-4).
Is a Sacrifice Needed?
Going back to the original question, the point being stressed is God’s characteristic as being “all-powerful”, that he should be able to do anything he pleases, therefore forgiving sins without needing a sacrifice should be part of that. However, as I said in the beginning, we are talking about the God of the Bible here. Not the god of the Qu’ran nor another preconceived god the world may have a picture of. The focus here isn’t on what God can or can’t do, but rather what humanity DID, what they now NEED to do based on what they did, and how God FIXES it. So biblically speaking, God “magically” waving his hand and forgiving what Adam and Eve did doesn’t work and it can’t. When he placed them in the garden, he told them that if they eat of the fruit, they will face consequences for their actions. They were created with free will, were given a choice, and acted on it. If he just forgave them on the spot regardless of the prior warning he gave them simply because he’s an “all-powerful” deity and that should be well within his ability he would be going back on his word and breaking the rule he set for them, making God not only an unjust God, but also a liar. God not only doesn’t lie but he can’t lie (Numbers 23:19, Psalm 89:33-35, Hebrews 6:18, Titus 1:2).
God is also a just God. He is the author of the law and the ultimate judge of it. The Bible states clearly that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). So then how is sin paid for? It’s an offense punishable by death. So just praying for God to forgive you would be nice, but who then pays for that offense? If a judge let go of a criminal that killed someone because he wanted to be “nice”, is that justice? Because he has the power to pardon an offense he then should, simply on the premise that he has the capability to? This doesn’t work in real life nor does it work in the Bible.
The Bible states that since birth, we have fallen from the glory of God (Romans 3:23). So no amount of repentance, or donating to the poor, or going to church, or starting a charity, or being a “good” person saves us from this (although these aren’t “bad” things, it doesn’t address the sin problem humanity still has). Nothing we can do will ever amount to anything in God’s eyes (Isaiah 64:6). This is the purpose of the law; to show our faults and points us to something greater than ourselves. The law demands perfection, something we can’t achieve due to our fallen state. So then, what’s the solution to this problem? On one side, humanity has a heavy penalty to pay, but on the other side, we have a God who loves us and doesn’t want us to perish (Ezekiel 18:23, Ezekiel 33:11). His solution is to have someone else pay for our penalty and allow us to go free, to be set free from the curse of the law by being made a curse for us (Galatians 3:13).
The Ultimate Sacrifice
Now the obvious rebuttal to this is how is Jesus – someone who had nothing to do with this situation – take on the punishment of someone else and this is viewed as fair? Humanity gets off free while Jesus gets punished. We both get what we don’t deserve so how is that fair? To this point, this is why it’s called the Gospel not “fair” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Fairness means that due to Adam and Eve’s disobedience all of humanity will have an eternity in the lake of fire to look forward to, that’s true fairness. However, that’s not the Gospel nor is that a display of God’s love. The essence of the Gospel is that in humanity’s depravity and rebellion, God in his love, grace (giving us what we don’t deserve), and mercy (not giving us what we do deserve) still held his hand out and offered mankind a way out from the mistake we ourselves made.
- “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
- “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
- “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…” (Ephesians 2:4-5)
So for those who state that this isn’t fair, that’s true. Jesus got what he didn’t deserve (death and judgement) so that we could get what we don’t deserve (everlasting life and a restored relationship with God), “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:10).
As I explained earlier, the law as well as the sacrificial system was meant to point to THE perfect sacrifice and the only one who could fulfill the law – Jesus. He is the “lamb that was slain” (Isaiah 53:7, John 1:29, Acts 8:32, 1 Peter 1:19, Revelation 5:9, Revelation 5:12, Revelation 13:8). This name itself points to the sacrifices of lambs that were made specifically on the feast of passover. Jesus fulfilled this feast by being THE passover lamb.
I touch more on the significance of the “Lord’s feasts” and how Jesus fulfills them in the first part of my article, Christianity and Islam: Reliability of the Bible (Part 2).
A Gift and an Outstretched Hand
Although God has provided a simple way for humanity to be reconciled to him one does not need to accept this free gift. The Gospel message isn’t forced on anyone, it’s a choice. We have it both ways; we can choose to reject God’s free gift of salvation and live life “fairly” by reaping the ramifications of our sinful nature, or we can choose to accept that gift, to grab hold of that loving hand reaching down to us in our depravity and get to know the one who laid down his life for us. Sure it isn’t ” fair” but as the saying goes, “life isn’t fair” and neither is the Gospel, but through his mercy we aren’t given what we deserve. It pleased God to have Jesus be a sacrifice for humanity so that the original relationship humanity had with God in the garden could be restored, “Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, And the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand. He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:10-11). Jesus himself also gladly took the punishment of the cross for humanity because of the joy set before him, meaning that he knew that through his sacrifice, many will be reconciled with God , “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
To learn more about the simplicity of the Gospel go to Cry of the Philippian Jailer.
“Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” (Romans 5:18-19)