Atoning Blood 11

By Philip Graham Ryken

The Blood of the Atonement

As we consider the three terms for atonement that Paul offers in Romans 3—word pictures that come from the marketplace, the law court, and the temple—we should see that all three of them are associated with blood.  Indeed, each of these aspects of atonement depends on the blood of Jesus for its efficacy.  Atoning blood satisfies the deepest need of the human race. 

In her book Maya Mysteries, Wendy Murray Zoba seeks to understand the need for atonement by examining the bloodiness of the ancient Mayan system of sacrifice.  History and archaeology show that the Maya practiced elaborate rituals of atonement, centered on child sacrifice.  As Zoba explains,

The Maya understood the need for blood, especially the blood. They have shown us there isn’t enough human blood in all the world to satisfy the gods. They are telling us the power of the sacrifice cannot be found in the blood of humans sacrificed by human hands. When the warfare increased toward the end of the dynasty, and the Maya all over the lowlands fought their civil wars and took captives, did they send them to the fields to work? No. They cut off their heads and carried them on sticks. For what? What did all that blood avail the ancient Maya?[1]

The answer is that blood availed them nothing.  The Maya thought that offering human sacrifices would bring them closer to God.  But the gods were not appeased, even when the bloodletting intensified.  As Zoba concludes, “The gods were not satisfied,” and thus the Maya did not receive forgiveness for their sins. 

To us the ancient Mayan rituals seem primitive and barbaric.  Yet many people feel the same way about the sacrifices of the Old Testament, and even about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  What do bloody sacrifices have to do with daily life in a postmodern world?  One late-night comedian mocked Christianity by saying, “You can’t be a rational person six days of the week . . . and on one day of the week go to a building and think you are drinking the blood of a 2,000-year-old space God. . . . That makes you a schizophrenic.”[2]

Believing in the blood of God is not schizophrenic; it is the gospel that holds everything together.  The need for atoning blood is a universal principle of divine justice for all peoples, in all places, at all times.  The human race has fallen into sin.  We have turned against God in rebellion, refusing to obey him, and choosing instead to go our own way.  As a result, we deserve to die.  This is what God’s justice demands.  We have sinned against his infinite majesty, and nothing less than life itself can pay the debt that we owe.  Blood is the price for sin, the only thing that can make us right with God.  Though the Maya were wrong about many things, they were right about this (much “righter” than many people today): deep down, they knew that blood is the way to God.

[1] Wendy Murray Zoba, Maya Mysteries, as quoted in Books & Culture, Vol. 8, No. 1 (January/February, 2002), 28.

[2] Bill Maher, as interviewed on NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien.