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.