History’s Most Famous Public Execution

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“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.” -Mark Twain (1835-1910)

The story of a Creator God saving the world by sacrificing his own son has been told countless times over the past two millennia. The death and resurrection of Jesus are central to Christianity, but the familiarity of this story prevents many people of faith from seeing the story with the eyes of those outside of the fold. In this blog post I want to take a few steps back to try and gain a broader perspective on this narrative that has so influenced our world. I’ll do this by asking two questions:

1. Why?
Apart from the fact that there is no external evidence that this event happened exactly as Christians believe, with all the accompanying supernatural drama of the sun darkening, the earth quaking, the veil in the temple being ripped from top to bottom, and corpses being raised up to walk around Jerusalem and appearing to the living*, other than the narratives recorded in the Bible, there is possibly the more important difficulty of making sense of the back story.

Why would an all powerful, loving God set up the universe in such a way that the only legitimate manner in which he could extend forgiveness to people he created, who were fundamentally flawed, was to arrange to have his son (who was in fact himself – see the next question) sacrificed in the most brutal way possible?

At that time, blood sacrifice was an essential cornerstone of the Jewish religion, of which Jesus was a member. From the very beginning of the book of Genesis, it was made clear that:

(a) sacrifices needed to be made in order to appease a god who was angry with humans, and

(b) this sacrifice needed to involve the blood and flesh of animals.

I remember being disturbed as a child by the story of Cane and Abel, and wondered why God rejected Cane’s offering of vegetables (presumably the product of many months of hard work, laboring over the soil and harvest – no insecticides or tractors or automated irrigation for Cane!) in favor of Abel’s offering of slaughtered animals. This seemed very unfair, and also cruel.

David Madison, in his book Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief, wrote the following on this subject:

I suspect that the Old Testament doesn’t get a lot of traffic other than isolated tall tales –Joseph and his amazing technicolor dreamcoat, Moses parting the Red Sea, Samson getting a haircut, David killing Goliath–because there is just too much stomach-churning tedium in its pages, rooted deeply in ancient religious practice. The details about animal sacrifice, for example, don’t hold a lot of appeal these days, and are usually a great puzzlement: Why is this stuff in the Bible at all? How did chopping up living creatures come to be at the heart of religious practice?

Animal sacrifice had its origins in the human quest to get on the good side of divine powers. How do you get a god to stop being mad at you? Or, to put it a little less personally: How do you avert the anger of a god, or the gods, in general? It was the most natural thing in the world for our distant ancestors to assume that all the lightning and storms, floods and droughts, earthquakes and volcanoes, and diseases and deformities were evidence that the gods were angry. (By no means has this idea gone out of fashion.) It’s no surprise that appeasing the gods became an obsession, and very early in our history humans decided that giving gifts to the gods might get them to calm down. Now, what do you get for the God who has everything? Clearly one of the most precious things we possess is life itself, so sacrificing living things seemed a common sense approach. Human sacrifice has occasionally been practiced, but animal sacrifice turned out to be more practical and, as less sadistic people eventually realized, more humane. (Those who have respect for animals understandably find it a dreadful, deplorable idea with no shred of humaneness at all.) In the early millennia of human civilization, after raising cattle was discovered to be easier than hunting wild animals, wealth came to be measured in cattle and livestock. Those with the largest herds had power and prestige. And with goats, sheep, and cows in plentiful supply, they became animals of choice for making sacrifices to the gods. It was concluded as well that the gifts should be of high quality. It wasn’t a good idea to bring inferior goods to the altar or temple. Hence there are chapters in the Bible specifying the animals that will qualify for sacrifice, with excruciating detail on how they are to be slaughtered and chopped up.”

It’s very difficult to reconcile the loving Father God worshipped and adored by millions in churches around the world every Sunday with a god who can only be described as blood thirsty. And yet Jesus himself repeatedly endorsed the Old Testament, even claiming that he had come to fulfill the law, not to abolish it. What was it about blood that was so appealing to this god? Why would nothing but a savage human sacrifice ultimately satisfy this god? The more I think about it, the more disturbing I find this foundational aspect of the Christian story.

The standard response from believers to questions like this is, we can’t always understand the motives and reasoning of God, because he is the creator and we are the creature. Ultimately, we must have faith that he knows best, and that in his wisdom, for reasons we don’t have to understand, this is the course he has chosen.

But the problem is, believing is easier for some than for others. Once these questions are sincerely asked (either on first hearing the story, or after years of grappling with doubts), the genie is out of the bottle, and cannot be put back in again.

2. Who?
Who was being sacrificed on that cross? As Guy P Harrison says in his book, 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian,
“If God the Father and Jesus are the same, then what does it really mean to sacrifice your son if your son is actually you?… Did God sacrifice himself on Earth temporarily and then rejoin himself in heaven? If so, it doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice.”

The early church was in fact almost torn apart by controversy as there were very different ideas circulating about who in fact Jesus was. Was he a man who, due to his closeness to God, was exalted to the highest place (the right hand of God the father) at his death? Or was he a pre-existing divine being, sharing equal status with the creator God? As is frequently the case when there is no evidence either way, people were extremely committed to their views on this matter. Things got so heated that in 325CE Constantine called for a council of bishops to meet and decide the question once and for all. The doctrine of the trinity was made an official, orthodox doctrine as a result of this council, but it was hotly contested and many parts of the church refused to accept it, as they felt it was impossible to have three gods in one as this challenged the monotheistic foundations of Christianity.

The question of who Jesus was, and what the crucifiction meant to those who witnessed it and heard about it in the ensuing decades after Jesus’s death, is explored in great detail in Bart Ehrman’s excellent book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.

Will this god of love judge me and billions of my fellow humans (past, present and future) for not believing a story that seems to many to be genuinely un-believable? Or to put it another way: But for the familiarity of the story and the fact that you may have accepted as “gospel truth” these stories told to you from a very young age by adults you most loved and trusted, would you find this story believable?

*Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Matthew 27:51–53)

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