In this holy season for Jews and Christians, their example spurred me to speak directly of what I believe to be “untruths” in my faith, Christianity. I invited readers, of whatever religious or non-religious persuasion, to join the conversation.
You may participate in two ways (I hope you will participate in both!): one, you may enter a “Comment” responding to whatever I said in that day’s blog. Your comment won’t show up until I okay it, but don’t worry, I will approve it.
The second way I hope you will participate is by sending me what you believe to be an “untruth” in your religion. If you are not religious, send me an “untruth” in non-religion. I will take your statements and include them (as you wrote them) in Part 4 which I hope to put together early next week. Please don’t wait until after you’ve seen Part 3, which will be my second “untruth” in the Christian faith, but send them as soon as you can. You can send your message to me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please indicate whether or not I should use your name. If not your real name, give me a pen name.
In one or both ways, please join the conversation. Now, let’s get to today’s untruth.
The claim that God required Jesus’ death as a sacrifice in order to forgive our sin I believe to be untrue.
In nothing do the four Gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- succeed in more than their depictions of Jesus' sufferings -- their careful, step-by-step recountings of his arrest, interrogations, torture, humiliation before hostile crowds, condemnation, the public parade in which he was forced to carry a splintery instrument of his own execution. If this is what is meant by the familiar words from John 3:16 -- "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…" -- then God chose for this son a time and place to be born in which one might die by the most painful means that human beings ever devised.
Of course, there were those in the decades after the crucifixion of Jesus who hadn’t been actually present who, when they contemplated the horror of Jesus' suffering, concluded that Jesus was not really human and so didn't really suffer. I feel confident that none of those who had actually been there would have harbored such illusions.
Even then those early Christians tried to comprehend the meaning of the suffering. Down through the centuries, Christians tried to give meaning to Jesus’ death with theories claiming that his death was a sacrifice whereby God was enabled to forgive our sins. There were many different theories of atonement, as they are called. No one of them was ever made THE doctrine in Christianity; but at the core of most Christian traditions is the notion that Jesus’ death on the cross makes possible God’s forgiveness.
How does that work? Some said Jesus' suffering and death was the result of a deal God made with the devil -- the death of God's beloved son in exchange for forgiving the sins of human kind. Others said that Jesus' suffering and death was the requirement of a God of justice in order to be able to forgive our sins. There are other theories, but they are improvisations on the same theme.
For me, those images are of a God that I don't know. They depict the image of a God who requires some kind of blood sacrifice, a practice that many of the Hebrew prophets had rejected long before Jesus' time. I believe they also depict a God that Jesus did not know. Jesus knew a God he called "Abba," a familiar term for "Father" that in our time might be more accurately translated "Daddy."
This untruth about Christianity has had enormous negative consequences in our history. First, besides making a monster out of God, it takes away responsibility from humans.
The Hebrew prophets before Jesus understood the negative consequences of a sacrificial system and could hardly have been clearer in their rejection of it. As Amos spoke for God eight centuries before Christ,
“I hate, I despise your festivals…Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them…But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24.)
Hosea also said it plainly: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”(Hosea 6:6; see also Micah 6:6-8; Jeremiah 7:21-23; et al)
Were those prophets wrong about sacrifice, or did God change God’s mind in the case of Jesus?
The second great negative consequence of viewing Jesus death as a sacrifice is that it obscured the obvious fact that Jesus was executed by the Romans on the charge of insurrection.
At the end of the first century when the books of the New Testament were being written, Christianity was under attack by the Roman government throughout much of the empire. Christians were under suspicion because Jesus had been executed for insurrection and thus their loyalties to the empire were questionable. Because of the threat of persecution, it was better not to acknowledge the real reason for Jesus’ death; and so his death was explained as “a mistake” and called a “sacrifice” that reunited humans with God, completely exonerating the Romans. Given the situation, the response of the early Christians may be understandable, but it didn’t resolve the question of who killed Jesus.
The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem became the scapegoats. Remember, Jesus and the early Christians were all Jews. They were, as it were, “Jesus Jews,” but until the fourth century, most Christians considered themselves Jews, however much they disagreed on Jesus with other Jews. What the Christian Jews did was to hand the Romans and their descendants justification for persecuting Jews. And that consequence is almost incalculable.
If Jesus’ death was not a pawn in some kind of cosmic chess game played by God to be able to forgive our sins, then why did he die? My answer to that question is beyond the scope of this blog series, but I believe the real reasons he died make sense and have relevance for us today.
What do you think: did God sacrifice Jesus in order to be able to forgive us our sins? Or, is it one of Christianity’s “untruths”?