Jesus' Sacrifice

A friend recently emailed me about Jesus (I’ve been getting a lot of these of late), and I wanted to highlight one of her paragraphs as a starting point for discussing Jesus’ “sacrifice.”

Once you take your eyes off of YOUR personal sufferings and what you’re going through and focus instead on Jesus and what he endured for our sakes, it all seems to pale in comparison. He was willing to come and suffer every temptation for our sake, and he died the most painful death imaginable for us. Suffering should not, then be seen as a mistake, but as something that is very much a part of the Christian life.

This is a common statement among the faithful, but it is without merit. A lot of evangelical emotionalism relies on the fact that Jesus underwent ultimate suffering for people who are ultimately unworthy: a starling parallel that can’t help but play into any existing sense of worthlessness or guilt that people might have. There are several reasons why these people should not feel amazed or privileged in light of Jesus’ death, and I’ll outline a few of them here.

First, Jesus did die a painful death (if the biblical accounts are to be believed, and I’ll assume for the sake of argument here that they are). But it was no different from the deaths of hundreds of people who were scourged and hung up to die every week during the height of Roman imperialism in the Middle East (c.f. Josephus). Sure, Jesus had one bad weekend “for us”…but then he got to rise up and reign in heaven forever. The total amount of suffering in his life was average and purposefully exceeded by many of his followers, proving false the claim that Jesus underwent any kind of “ultimate suffering.”

Second, was the suffering in any way related to what Jesus had to accomplish? If it was in some way efficacious for his ends, why didn’t God make him suffer a little more–by prolonging his death or having the Romans gouge out his eyes in some kind of Promethean torture–thereby increasing the potency of his sacrifice and making it even better? We can only conclude by the average amount of suffering Jesus underwent that it was all auxiliary to his main goal, which was simply to die…and then you wonder why God didn’t just behead him like Abraham was going to do to Isaac, or something a little less painful. The only logical purpose his suffering seems to serve is getting Christians to feel grateful and unworthy; the opening quote from my friend is a case in point.

Third, it wasn’t even a real death (if Christian doctrine is to be accepted). Jesus knew beforehand that he was going to rise again (see Mark 8:31 or John 10:17-18), and apparently he even told other people about it (see Matthew 27:63). How is this a sacrifice at all? It’s a day of torture at the end of an average life–with no actual death involved. It’s like agreeing to enter a coma when you know that your life will be infinitely better when you wake up in three days. It’s nothing at all–it’s just a “watch my magic show” kind of thing that people are required to see (or believe) before God will consider forgiving them, which his omnipotence apparently couldn’t afford beforehand.

Fourth, what’s the whole deal with blood sacrifice? Besides being primitive, immoral, and disgusting, it’s integrally related (in the Jewish tradition) to certain conditions: the spotless lamb, for example, had to be sacrificed on an altar with the right words pronounced over it in order for God to accept the blood, be appeased, and forgive the people (see Leviticus 1). In other words, a lamb couldn’t just be attacked and killed out in the field by a lion and grant the Israelites absolution for the coming year. Yet this is exactly what happened to Jesus; he was killed under normal, criminal circumstances that had nothing to do with sacrifice or substitutionary atonement. He failed to meet even the most basic requirements of God’s law for a sacrifice.

Speaking of which, the concept of substitutionary atonement is one of those things I stopped understanding as soon as I gave it a moment’s thought. No modern court would condone this form of punishment, view it as moral, or consider it justice. And why would an omnipotent God even want it? He created people knowing they were going to sin–setting them up to sin–and then created this loophole of killing himself so the bastards could still sit in his presence, even though he created the system and can do whatever he wants. Huh?

I would normally just cast aside the beliefs about Jesus’ glorified suffering–if they didn’t have so many awful implications. Orthodox Christianity views suffering as a virtue, and this is antithetical to the good of humanity. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out, for example, Mother Teresa had millions in the bank but insisted on laying down her patients on the bare floors of filthy warehouses and holding their hands while they died instead of administering medicine or pain killers, all of which were easily within her means to provide. Why? Because she thought suffering was a virtue that led you closer to the experience and reality of Christ.

As mentioned before, secular scientists are far better at eliminating disease and suffering than God is. Perhaps the best bliblical explanation for this is that God likes suffering. Most Christians expect persecution and view it as a sign that they really are in line with what God wants–why else would the devil be attacking them so hard? This is a harmful worldview that accepts the bad things in life (as proof of salvation) without making an attempt to reduce suffering and improve life in a tangible way. A true moral sense should lead us to desire a life that eradicates unnecessary suffering, not one that glorifies it.

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6 Responses to Jesus' Sacrifice

  1. BillK says:

    This is an interesting debate, I suppose, for those who appreciate the fine points of christian theology. But the problem is that this all presupposes that a supernatural deity/deities exist(s) and is capable of doing/experiencing/feeling things that we lowly humans are incapable of. And that to me is where the flaw in all this begins and ends. As each theological point in the mythology is debunked, an even more fantastic, extraordinary, explanation beyond the realm of human understanding is given as a basis to support it. It’s almost like a little kid telling a story. As each improbable claim is questioned, an even more improbable claim is presented to support the previous claim.

    I will concede that there may indeed be a species somewhere in the vast universe that has a much better understanding of the universe than we humans do, and are able to therefore comprehend some occurrences that we are not able to. But I would also posit that even though that may be the case, such an understanding will still not go against the laws and limits of the physical world.

    So until such time as there is actual evidence to support these irrational explanations of improbable myths, I am afraid that there is no reason whatsoever to accept these things as fact, unless one feels a certain comfort in deluding oneself.

  2. mikhailovich says:

    Thanks for commenting.

    I agree that Jesus’ sacrifice (if we are going to take the gospel accounts at face value) was not about the amount of pain suffered. Perhaps I didn’t make this clear enough in the article. I was trying to address the common Christian point that Jesus underwent the most intense physical suffering possible, listing that “fact” as evidence of how complete and perfect his sacrifice was. I was trying to say that IF the suffering itself was somehow efficacious, why not suffer more? On the other hand, if the physical suffering wasn’t the point, then why suffer at all? Was it just some emotional ploy to get people to feel a little more grateful? I was asking what role the suffering played at all in Jesus’ sacrifice, not claiming that the suffering was what it was all about.

    You seem to be saying that Christ’s sacrifice was going to hell so we don’t have to. Theologically speaking, I suppose this is a valid point. But then why come to the physical earth just to get to the spiritual hell? Why not just visit (or experience) hell for a day from heaven and not undergo the [apparently] auxiliary and unnecessary physical pain that was involved?

    Furthermore, Christian theology teaches that hell is an eternal state for the unsaved. I’m not sure how Christ spending three (or less) days there and then getting to come out is in any way an equal trade. Hell, I’d spend a few days in hell if that would get me into heaven and bring everybody else along too! If Jesus was permanently confined to hell and suffering there for eternity for our sakes…now that would be an actual sacrifice.

  3. Tim says:

    Happened to stumble upon your site using my firefox ‘stumbleupon’ addon.

    Your points are pretty interesting, although I think your first two are somewhat misguided since you’re basing Jesus’ level of sacrifice on the amount of pain alone. I think what many people don’t understand, even many Christians included, is the fact that what Jesus suffered on the cross wasn’t simply pain, but it was the manifestation of Hell itself.

    We seem to somehow get this idea that Hell is a place of fire and burning and a ridiculously painful experience, when the fact is that the actual Biblical definition of Hell (which I’m not going to get into fully) is a place/time in which we have an identity that is not built on God that goes on for eternity. It’s like having something about myself that I’ve hated maybe for my whole life, maybe my selfishness or pride or whatever, and I’ve been working to change it for 20 years; except now the scenario is that it just gets worse and worse for an eternity and we lose the ability to change it or even to derive any small amount of pleasure that we usually tend to get for it. (That was a long sentence.) 100 years of a worsening bad attitude is nothing like 1,000,000 years of a worsening bad attitude. But anyway, that’s Hell. I guess that is like a fire, those fires in our hearts that we try to put out lest they totally consume us.

    And on the cross, Christ was separated completely from God the Father (it says the Father turned his face away from Christ), which ultimately means his identity was ripped away from Him. And that is hell. And I guess that also sort of addresses your third point, albeit not fully.

    So it’s not about any sort of physical or even emotional or mental pain. It’s about the fact that he went to Hell so we wouldn’t have to.

    Anyways, I’m trying not to make this too lengthy, but I want to hear any further thoughts. You bring up some good discussion.

  4. Brandon says:

    Jesus is not unique; he is just an interpretation of a scapegoat. The Greeks had them, the Hebrews had them, the NFL has them; they’re called place kickers. No matter what it’s called, allowing someone else to accept punishment and ridicule for your misdeeds is wrong (even if they were conceived only to fulfill that purpose).

  5. mikhailovich says:

    Thanks for your response. I’m happy to address each of your points.

    1. In this paragraph I was addressing the claim that “Jesus died the most painful death imaginable,” and I still call bullshit on that point. Other have suffered more painful deaths, both in recorded history and mythology, thus invalidating the statement that Jesus suffered the “most painful death.”

    2. You’re saying that Jesus had to suffer because he was taking on human shame as well as guilt. This is simply another aspect of “suffering” and doesn’t affect the point I was making. Jesus’ shame is finite and therefore quantifiable. If it was in some way efficacious for salvation, why wasn’t it increased a bit to make his sacrifice even better? If it wasn’t efficacious, why suffer at all?

    3. I’ve read the book of Hebrews, and Jesus’ supposed “perfection” is the only cogent similarity the author can establish between Christ and a lamb, ignoring all the other requirements of Leviticus 1. Even if the lamb was perfect, it couldn’t be killed in a field by lions and count as a sacrifice, etc. I already made this point.

    4. Yes, criticizing Mother Teresa is controversial. Perhaps I shouldn’t have brought it up as a brief point without elaborating more on Hitchens’ book, which does in fact discuss her worldwide “ministry.” The basic (and undeniable) contrast is the sheer amount of cash Mother Teresa had squirreled away vs. her refusal to provide easily available pain killers or medicine to her patients–based on her [harmful] belief that suffering was good. Check it out.

    5. It’s difficult to keep track of the differing views of all the Christian sects, so perhaps I was wrong in asserting that most Christians view suffering as virtuous. Mother Teresa certainly did. The Bible certainly does (Matthew 5:11). A most of the Christians I’ve talked with view it as proof that they’re doing something right, because the devil’s hitting them hard. When a certain view gains enough support, criticism of that view ceases to be a caricature.

  6. Timothy Tennent says:

    Under normal circumstances, I don’t think it is particularly helpful to respond to these kind of statements. However, since you said that “for the sake of argument” you will speak as if the biblical texts were accurate, then you are moving – for the sake of argument only – onto our grounds and arguing that even those of us in the believing community of faith have no answer to your arguments. This is patently false.
    First, comparing the relative suffering of Jesus with other forms of suffering misses the point entirely. If Jesus Christ is the very incarnation of God himself in human flesh, then it is the most amazing news in the history of the world. If Jesus is just one of hundreds the Roman Empire crucified, then why even discuss it. The point of the quotation was that we should be humbled by the incredible news that God loved us so much that he was willing to take the punishment which we deserved upon himself. The Biblical texts focus on who it was that suffered…. that is the unique and amazing part. The Bible never makes the claim which you assert and it wasn’t the point of the Christian who sent you that note.
    Second, the Scriptures teach that it was necessary that Jesus die an ignominious death because he bore both our guilt as well as our shame. If the death of Jesus involved only taking on our guilt, then it could have been accomplished apart from the agony of the cross. However, his substituion involved taking on the public shame and ridicule as a part of the overall passion of Christ. Christians teach that Jesus took on guilt, shame and fear…you focused on only one.
    Third, as the book of Hebrews makes clear, the central qualification of the sacrifice was that it be spotless. The fact that Christ was without sin qualifies him to be the substition for our sins..he was spotless in a way which the lambs could only crudely mirror. Jesus is also the high priest since, the Bible teaches that he willingly offered up himself for the sins of the world. The book of Hebrews does very carefully lay out how Jesus fulfills the requirements for a sacrifice.
    Fourth, most people would find it a bit of a stretch to accept criticism of Mother Teresa unless and until those who who serve up the criticism had spent their lives assisting the poor and the dying. Her whole life was spent alleviating the suffering of others and the world honored her by giving her the Nobel Peace Prize. The Sisters of Charity has hospitals and clinics all over the world, not just Calcutta, so you may not be aware of the full scope of the work which is enormously expensive. I have been to Calcutta and seen her work first hand and I can assure you that it was very clean, but it was appropriately modest and care was being extended in an Indian, not merely western way.
    Fifth, Christianity does not teach, as you assert, that suffering is inherently virtuous. Christianity does teach that suffering is redemptive when it is endured for the sake of others. Each person has the right to believe or to reject the Christian message, but if you are going to argue on internal grounds, then a more careful study of the New Testament and the teaching of the church might help you focus your rejection on the actual teachings of the Scriptures, not caricatures of them.

    T. Tennent

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