Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Human Sacrifice and the Atonement
My brain works in strange ways, making odd connections at random moments. A few weeks ago I watched Mel Gibson's movie Apocalypto (I should have been in bed, but couldn't sleep). The thesis of the movie is a quote from the very beginning: "A civilization cannot be conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." The obvious sickness of the Mayan civilization was their total disregard for the value of human life. The scenes of sacrifice are some of the most bloody I've seen on film. Then, a couple of weeks ago, the communion table talk was a typical retelling of Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross. I don't know why, but I bristled at the story. And finally, as we were driving home last night I saw a church on LBJ freeway brightly decorated with Christmas lights, but they also had a cross brightly lit up. That really didn't seem right to me! You just don't display crosses at Christmas time - there has to be etiquette about that - surely! So here's what I've been thinking, and I want to pose it as a question (and please, THINK about it! Don't yell "heretic" right away):
God detests human sacrifice. Deuteronomy 12:31 says, "You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods." The practice of human sacrifice is one of the reasons God commands Israel to wipe out much of Canaanite civilization. Is this ironic? Maybe. It's really clear that God does not approve of human sacrifice. It's also clear that human sacrifice, as it evolved in primitive societies, reflects a morally degenerate understanding of an angry god who needs appeasement with blood. This is a naturalistic rather than a supernatural way of understanding the divine.
Okay, here's the question: If God detests human sacrifice, why is the central pillar of Christian theology a human sacrifice? What is articulated in Colossians 1:20 "peace through his blood shed on the cross" is the primary thesis of Christianity - that humans sinned, God was angry, and Jesus' death on the cross (a violent, painful, bloody death) appeased that anger by meeting the requirements of justice, and so we are no longer guilty. We call this "atonement." This is why Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" was as bloody as possible. It represented a particular Catholic view of Jesus' death. This is why I'll never understand why so many evangelical Christians took this movie as an opportunity to evangelize. This cannot be how we reach the lost? Does anyone else see a problem with this? What is the answer? I think I have it, but you go first.