Thursday, November 6, 2003

The "Sacrifice" of Jesus

From the time I first began to think critically of Christian theology (which would be about the time I was in high school), the idea the Jesus was a "sacrifice" for the sins of mankind made no sense to me, and I was pleased finally to read a theologian who agrees with me. In Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Marcus J. Borg discusses different ways of seeing Jesus and talks about the "priestly story" of sin, guilt, sacrifice, and redemption. He also admits that the priestly story is the principal metaphor of the Christian church, which he believes is a mistake for several reasons, one of which is that the story does has no logic to it. "The notion that God's only son came to this planet to offer his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, and that God could not forgive us without that having happened, and that we are saved by believing this story, is simply incredible…. To many people, it simply makes no sense…."

And I am one of the people for whom the story makes no sense.

The crucifixion of Jesus is often compared to the story of Abraham and Isaac, but I can't understand how or why God would sacrifice His own Son. To whom was God offering a sacrifice?

A sacrifice is a quid pro quo. In chess (or war), you sacrifice a pawn to capture a knight. In cabalistic religions, you sacrifice an animal to gain the favor of your gods. In each case, there are rules or realities that require that one thing be given up to gain something else. Why was it necessary for God to give up His Son? What rules or realities bind God? Why could God not forgive our sins without killing His own Son?

And what did God accomplish by that sacrifice? What did the life and death of Jesus accomplish that could not have been accomplished in any other way?

Or perhaps the sacrifice was not by God, but by Jesus. (See Hebrews 9:11 and following for examples of this metaphor.) Jesus would then have been sacrificing something valuable to Himself, His own life, in exchange for the salvation of the world. But a sacrifice must be pleasing to God, so we are back to the same question, which is why God would want His own Son as a sacrifice.

And in what way was the life and death of Jesus a sacrifice? If Jesus was resurrected and still lives, then there was no sacrifice at all, because nothing was lost. Or was it the fact that God was made man, and lived and died as a man, that was the sacrifice? But what is so awful about living and dying? The rest of us still live and die, and no one claims that any of us are living and dying for the sins of the world.

If you believe that Jesus was the only Son of God, and that God is all-powerful, then you must also believe that the death of Jesus was part of God's plan and what God wanted. So then you have to find a reason for God to kill His own Son, and the idea of a sacrifice is probably as good as any. Except that it makes no sense.