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.


Charles North said...

Come now - I know how many people have read this since yesterday, and no one is willing to step up and defend the most fundamental tenet of their faith? I really want to know what you think.

Brian England said...

I have an idea. It is too long to explain at the moment, but I'll get back.

Short Answer: The cross event gives a voice, for the first time, to the "scapegoat" (those who have been rejected and oppressed by community/society and blamed for anything from community misfortune to societal dysfunction). Historically, those treated as a scapegoate never really had a say in whether it was just and everyone else never really seriously looked at the practice from the "scapegoat's" perspective. Relating it to what you have been preaching on "good/evil"--the community never views the scapegoat as a legitimate, or complete, member of God's creation (the community rejects his humanity).

Charles North said...

That's good. I'm intrigued by your last statement: "the community rejects his humanity." I hope no one says "Jesus wasn't human, he was divine" as an answer.

Ben B said...

I think *because* God detests human sacrifice, it has become the central pillar of Christian theology. If you consider all of the ways God could have allowed Jesus to die, he allowed one of the most gruesome, painful, bloody ways possible: a form of death that God truly hated. It adds an additional aspect of credibility to Jesus' sacrifice. For God to have allowed His own Son to face that public torture and humiliation, and then for him to truly undergo a human death, we know that God's protection truly must have left Christ...

Charles North said...

That's a good observation as well. There is so much bad theology swirling around in communion talks, I want Christians to be really clear-headed about what we believe.

Brian England said...

As you probably know, Heim wrote about this very problem in "Saved from Sacrifice." His work is devoted to what you describe--aka "penal substitutionary atonement." What is interesting is this has become the most dominant lens from which to view the cross event. This is why people might accuse you of being a heretic for raising such questions. For some, this is the only view of the cross. Most people who view the cross in this manner have really not stopped to truly question what it says about God.

But, ath the same time, its hard to just completely reject this view (especially since it is the most prominent view of the crucifiction). If I completely reject it (which I want to do), it leaves me in an akward position in regard to the rest of scripture. The bible is a scandalous and violent document. And the cross is intimately tied up with the notion of "sacrifice," a theme that links both the Old and New Testaments. To completely reject this view on moral and theological grounds would leave me with a lot of problematic texts. Bloody, sacrifical texts. Do we have to reject these texts? I hope not. So what do we do? This is the question Heim addresses in his book. Great and very contraversial work. Read it.

Heim chooses not to jettison these texts, rather he integrates them and the cross event in a way that holds both God and Jesus in opposition to the violence that makes us so uncomfortable.

I'll summarize some of his main ideas later.

Charles North said...

I just want people to at least realize that there are a number of different ways of understanding the atonement. The dominant view is a medieval Catholic view. Many have rejected that. Even within our own "movement," Barton Stone rejected the idea of penal substitutionary atonement.

Mark said...

Sorry, I had to do some reading before I weighed in on this one.

The following is an exerpt from Romans Chapter 5

"6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! 10 For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!"

So does this come down to atonement versus reconciliation? Are the two mutually exclusive or inclusive?

Does the story of the lost sheep or the prodigal son, where no atonement is made but reconciliation is given show any insight into this discussion?

This is a very interesting question that you pose. Seems like I need to do some more reading...


Mark said...

OK... just a little more thought... I think it ties in with the prodigal son/lost sheep thing.

Former UN Secretary, Dag Hammarskjöld, stated, "Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality because he who 'forgives' you -- out of love -- takes upon himself the consequences of what you have done. Forgiveness, therefore, always entails a sacrifice."

Maybe that's what it's all about. Think about it, when you forgive someone for talking bad about you, you have to accept all the repercussions. Couple that with the idea from scriptures that the consequence of sin is death. When Christ forgave us, he accepted the consequence of our sins, death.

Dunno, just some more brain fodder.

Charles North said...

That's good. I also think it's important that, in the gospels, Jesus makes it very clear that nobody has the power to take his life from him, but he freely lays down his life. Self sacrifice is much more noble. Maybe that's why it's acceptable.

Bill Jordan said...

I don't think I can add anything profound to the conversation ... but I do want to call Charles out on his statement, "There is so much bad theology swirling around in communion talks."

I don't know that there's anything I've ever been asked to do in a worship service setting that brings me more discomfort than being asked to speak prior to the Lord's Supper.

My problem has nothing to do with good or bad theology, it's that like most things we put very little preparation time or effort into what will be communicated.

I grew up in a generation where in most cases or locations only a simple prayer was offered as the communion service got underway. Then that practice -- or form -- turned into a "table talk." But along the way we continued to practice the "throw something together" method of worship preparation.

I don't know how many times I've been asked to "lead" the communion service right as I walked into the church building, giving me about five minutes to gather my "thoughts." The result is sometimes my rants and raves at a football game are better thought out because I've had more time to prepare those words (what else can you do during the two-mintue warning and five time outs right before halftime?)

I'm not sure I've ever addressed a "table talk" from a perspective of theology. Nobody ever told me to, or maybe I wasn't there the day they handed out the memo.

Theology to me in the raw form is our private or collective reasoning about how we draw ourselves closer to God. The problem is we've got a lot of people who can't draw the line between their theology and their doctrine. And they can't draw a line between their doctrine and their form and function. And for some other folks all four of those things are a giant train wreck in their heads.

I guess on the one hand I'm agreeing with Charles about his table talk statement, but on the other hand I don't like to be sliced open and exposed as having a bad theology for my table talks when the end product was brought about because we give each other so little preparation time. Of course you can also say in all honesty that we all have plenty of preparation time, but most of us just don't give "it" much thought until we are asked to stand and deliver.

As far as the actual topic here goes, I'm kind of like Brian. "I have an idea, but it takes too long to explain."

Mark said...

Charles, forgive me, but I'm gonna chase a fat rabbit based on some comments that Bill said.

I've always thought we miss something in the way we practice the Lord's Supper. We close our eyes, we open our bibles and read. We really shut out every one around us. In some congregations, we even dim the lights... we have made the breaking of the bread a somber, inward focused event.

The bible doesn't talk about it much... but there has to be some significance to us coming together for the breaking of the bread. Any thoughts?

Charles North said...

Bill. I think reading a scripture and then praying rather than a "talk" is the best way to go. I think one sermon is enough per worship. Replace the word "theology" with "bad ideas."

Mark. I think it has to be communal. The context of the phrase "the body of the Lord" in 1Cor. 11:29 ("For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself") actually means the church. The church is the body of the Lord. That has some profound implications!

Tommy Riggs said...

As I reflect on your question in your original post as to why human sacrifice is the central pillar of Christianity, two thoughts come to mind. 1) I really don't know and I'm not sure I ever will this side of heaven...shortly after that #2) If it were just the idea that someone died for me--a nice peaceful death in their sleep, I don't think I would feel nearly as indebted as I do. For me personally, I believe when I recognize the torture that Jesus went through it stimulates a deeper love and appreciation for Him and God. I realize that not everyone is like me, and that many struggle with the concept of a God that can allow for the "evil" that we see in this world--including the crucifixion.

As for your thoughts on bad theology/ideas, share your thoughts and provide your rationale. I think a few weeks ago you discussed that our contribution was not "separate and apart" from the Lord's Supper. I thought your view was communicated well. I'm sure all of us have been subject to bad theology in classes, sermons, songs and communion talks at one time or another. We need to make efforts to make corrections in a spirit of love.

My personal view is that some diversity isn't a bad thing, but a good thing. I would hate to see us make a decision to say that efforts to foster a deeper communion be limited only to scripture reading and prayer. Just as certain song styles, sermon styles, and teaching styles affect us differently, activities around communion will affect us differently. I (and I think most) will benefit from some variety. Some of my most meaningful times of communion were not centered on words--but on art and music. We're all different and there is a place for activities being varied to meet diverse needs.

Charles North said...

Tommy. Those are good thoughts concerning worship. I also think variety is a good thing. Actually, everyone has made some good comments, but my question was obviously leading somewhere - I just wanted to give people a chance to answer in lots of different ways. Okay, here's what I think . . . (drumroll please)

I think that Jesus' death on the cross is NOT the central pillar of Christian belief. It is certainly important, especially since he sacrificed himself voluntarily, but thousands of young Jewish men were crucified during the Roman occupation. Jesus' death is not unique in any way. The central pillar of Christianity is that 3 days later Jesus walked out of the tomb! It's RESURRECTION! (see 1 Cor.15)

Without the resurrection there is no gospel, no church, baptism means nothing, the Lord's Supper is irrelevant, there can be no salvation, and there is no hope of heaven. Jesus' resurrection is the reason for everything. What bothers me about so many worship services (prayers, songs, sermons, communion talks, scripture reading) is the lack of attention to the resurrection. If you go through an entire worship and you don't hear the resurrection proclaimed, it is a waste of time!

This is a fundamental difference between the eastern and the western church - the western church (both Catholic and Protestant) emphasize the crucifixion, while the eastern church emphasizes the resurrection.

Mark said...

OK, so maybe it's not bad theology at the "talks," (bad equaling wrong.) Maybe it's incomplete theology that stops at the cross. We sing songs like, "Lead Me to Calvary," and "He Paid a Debt." We typically read the cross account. I had never really thought about how incomplete that leaves the story...

Christ says, "do this in remembrance of me." When we gather around the table and only focus on one single memory, we really miss out.

OK... back to the original argument. Does it all come down to a chicken/egg argument; ie, which came first, the forgiveness or the sacrifice?

A.H. Jordan said...


It's funny you should bring this up at this particular time.

I think next month may be my turn in the barrell for "table talk" and I've been thinking about what to say. I haven't started reading on it yet, but I'm leaning toward a comparison between the last supper we commemorate and the passover meal that Jesus and the apostles were actually observing.

The general point being the passover meal in Jewish custom was meant to be a celebration and thanksgiving for God having brought them out of physical bondage at the hands of the Egyptians. The Lord's Supper we observe, likewise, should be a celebration and thanksgiving for God having brought us out of spiritual bondage of our own sins.

While I don't think we should shy away from recognizing the awesome sacrifice of the cross, I agree that possibly it shouldn't be the focal point of he Lord's Supper any more than the lamb's blood on the door post was the focal point of the passover feast.

The cross is and should be a "fundamental tenet" of our faith, but that's not the good news we want to celebrate and share with others. The good news is freedom from sin and a God who wants to lead us out of slavery and into a promised land.

So, even though you don't seem to like a mini-sermon before the Lord's Supper, maybe we should try to learn a little more about what the passover meant to the Jews, and what we can take from that.

I'd welcome anyones thoughts or suggestions.

Deborah Jordan said...

Don't expect this comment to be full of deep theological insight.
I agree that if our thoughts go only as far as the crucifixion and no further, we are missing out on a large part of what we should be "remembering" about our Lord.
I often read scripture during the communion to help me focus my thoughts on remembering Jesus. I have several that I tend to read over and over. Sometimes it's Hebrews 8,9,& 10. Sometimes it's Revelation 5. But the one that I keep going back to is John's account of the crucifixion and the resurrection. I love chapter 20 when Jesus appears to Mary. When he calls her name, and she realizes he is alive, it thrills my heart and never fails to bring tears to my eyes. He has overcome the world! He has overcome death! This is our hope! This is the victory! My goodness, doesn't it just make you want to shout praises to our God and risen Lord!(of course, I would never shout during the communion). By the way, I wish we didn't seem to feel the need to manage this time of communion as "efficiently" as possible. I often find myself wishing I had just a little more time to remember Him--His life, His sacrifice, His resurrection, and His intercession now on our behalf at the right hand of God. Romans 8:34 seems to indicate to me that there is more to remember about His atonement than just his death. "Christ Jesus, who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us."

Theology aside, all I can say is, "Hallelujah, what a Savior!"

Charles North said...

These are all really good thoughts and comments. This kind of discussion is exactly what I wanted to get going. Andrew - I'm sure you'll do a great job with the communion talks. And Deb - thanks for commenting. I know you read this blog - it's nice to have you "on record."

jenn said...

Sort of in response to what Deborah said...don't you wish sometimes that we weren't so "cautious" in our times of remembering Christ? So what if you did shout praises to our Lord during communion? I just think many christians hold back their desires to show their love of Jesus for fear of what others may think. I wish it wasn't like that. I wish at time I wasn't like that!

Brian England said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian England said...

We have definetly taken the community out of communion. Charles, I think you're minimizing what actually was going on with Jesus crucifiction to make a point. The comparison between Jesus' crucifiction and the other thousand Jews is flawed for many reasons (although see below). I also believe that your emphasis on ressurection over and above the crucifiction is extremely dangerous and is what has led to many distorted views of what it means to be a disciple of Christ (i.e., health and wealth). Jesus rebuked Peter, James and John when they became more interested in their ressurected status than in the reality of sacrificial discipleship.

Apparently, I'm more Markan on this particular issue than you. Mark went to great efforts to show how Jesus' "followers" are more interested in the supernatural and his blessings than in his sacrifice.

On communion talk: The problem, in my mind, has been we tend to focus on what is going on with Jesus' humanity on the cross, but during his life we focus in on the stories that emphasize his deity (miracle narratives). I think the better way to read scripture is to reverse that practice. We focus way too much on his physical pain during his crucifiction, when we know there have been people who have experienced much more physical suffering than Jesus for longer periods of time. I believe we need to look more closely at what was going on with Jesus as a part of the Trinity at his death. Its hard to find anything more compelling than thinking about the death of God. I mean we are talking about a point in eternity where the Trinity was fractured (the only time). Devine community was broken for humanity and only God the Father could restore that relationship.

My readings of the Last Supper texts are also through the lens of sacrifice. For a Hebrew, to remember something was to relive it. It was a way of participating in historical events by bringing the past into the present. When Jesus held up a loaf of bread and said "This is my body"; and then broke it saying "Do this in remembrance of me," he was inviting his disciples to participate in his sacrifice. We have always read that text as an invitation and call to gather around a table with him to share in a meal (which is correct). But, I think it was much more than that. I think it was an object lesson using the unleaven Passover bread to make a point--as he held up the bread (his body) and broke it, he was saying the best way for his disciples to remember and be like him is to allow their bodies, like that loaf of bread (his body), to be broken for each other ("do this in memory of me").

But I admit, I may just be reacting to the pop-"health and wealth" messaage out there today.