Imagine sacrificing your only child, a beloved son, for the good of someone else. What compassion! Assuming your son feels a similar altruistic fervor about the whole thing, what a magnanimous act by both of you! John 3:16, one of the most frequently quoted Bible verses of all time, describes this very benevolence. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." It's a hard act to follow.
We can only view this gesture of supreme love in human terms. We try to imagine what it would be like to sacrifice a much loved son. (Interestingly, the idea of sacrificing a virginal daughter sounds offensively pagan. Doesn't it?) But we have trouble coming to terms with child-sacrifice. It is just too painful.
Of course we have sent our sons off to war for as long as there have been wars, and a great percentage of them never come back. But there is always that flicker of hope. Perhaps our son will return to us. A straightforward sacrifice, however, leaves no room for hope. If a death is required, a death it shall be. And in the case of Jesus' death, there was the added, grim horror of torture. Crucifixion is not a pretty thing.
We'll set aside for the moment the fact that there is no cross, anywhere, in the Bible. The Greek word that has been mistranslated over the centuries as "cross" is really "stake," with no cross-beam even implied. However, since most Christians believe in a cross, we'll stay with that imagery. Besides, if you're going to affix someone to a piece of wood to await an agonizing death, does it really matter whether you nail him to it or impale him on it?
So, now we are faced with the harrowing specter of a loving God offering up his only son for prolonged torture in addition to certain death. And why? Because we are all worthless sinners in need of "redemption." It is all for us. Tears well up at the thought. This is emotional dynamite.
Let's take a deep breath, though, and look at this scenario more closely. As I have noted on many other occasions, with the reminder that it always bears repeating (because it does), there is a need to justify Jesus' sacrificial death in the first place. An all-powerful God would have had the option of creating any kind of creature he wanted. So for him to have created wicked sinners who would need some sort of redemption seems arbitrarily cruel. Why not create perfect people and avoid all this grief? There could have been nothing to prevent an omnipotent God from doing this. However, no one has ever solved this puzzle, so let's move on.
The love of this God for his human creations was supposedly so strong that he sacrificed his own son on their behalf. But what does the word "sacrifice" mean, literally? Well, it means the ritual slaughter of an animal or a person; the forfeiture of something highly valued for the sake of something considered to have a greater value. Almost everyone will claim to know what the word means. Yet Christians, as well as most of the rest of us, fail to recognize the serious difficulty in the Jesus-as-sacrifice scenario. That is, if Jesus was actually sacrificed, why isn't he still dead?
Consider again the forlorn parents sending their son off to war. If their son is killed during battle, that's the end of it. They have truly sacrificed their son. They will not be receiving another message in a couple of days telling them that their son is now just fine. Jesus, however, was not only "just fine" on the third day, but he was also allowed to ascend into Heaven, there to reign with God the Father for all eternity. How can this possibly be considered a sacrifice?
There is a world of difference, for example, between putting your child in an abusive environment for three days, and shooting him in the forehead with a sawed-off shotgun. The two events are not even remotely related. But they demonstrate, in a grisly way to be sure, the enormous difference between the "sacrifice" of Jesus, and the sacrifice of a normal, human child. Actually, the differences are greater still.
A normal child, one may assume, would have no supernatural powers, and would therefore not know in advance if or when the abuse was going to end. Jesus, on the other hand, would have known to the nanosecond how long his ordeal would be. Moreover, an ordinary child would have no way of mitigating his suffering. He would simply have to grit his teeth and endure. Jesus, once again with his supernatural powers, need not have suffered at all. He could have placed himself in a state of euphoria if he chose. Or, for that matter, slept through it all. Nothing would have been beyond his powers. If he chose to suffer, it was his own doing. Most assuredly, then, Jesus cannot be regarded as some sort of passive, sacrificial lamb, as he is so often described. He controlled his own destiny.
In the same way, God the Father cannot be considered to be an average, grieving parent. He, along with Jesus, would know that the suffering, if they chose to accept it, would end, when they chose to end it. They would know that the so-called death-state would be of very brief duration indeed. And, when viewed this way, the whole crucifixion is a pointless sham. It is play-acting. It includes voluntary (or only simulated) pain, a temporary death, and a glorious ascension into Heaven. Where exactly does the word "sacrifice" fit in here? And even if there had been a real Jesus who went through a real crucifixion, there are, sadly, thousands of WWII, Korean War and Vietnam vets whose suffering could make Jesus' problems look like a day at the beach.
Why would anyone be sad, or even feign sadness, on Good Friday, if they know Easter is right around the corner? As a comparison, suppose you were to tell a group of friends that a mutual friend had just died. Then, you end this dreadful announcement with a cry of, "April Fool!" Aside from the probably justified fear that someone may go for your throat because of this stunt, would there be any other reason for you to feel dismayed? Since you knew all along that there was no problem with your "dead" friend, how in the world could you feel sad about him? Similarly, how could God feel sad about the pretend death of his son, Jesus? It bears all the earmarks of an April Fool joke.
Surprisingly, there is very little discussion about this puzzle, in religious or non-religious circles. The historical accuracy of the event is discussed endlessly, but not the actual nature of the supposed event. Real death and pretend death are not the same thing, and any ten-year-old can tell you that. Thus, along with having to explain so many other riddles about the Jesus story, Christians must also address this enigma. Somehow.
So the next time some proselytizing Christian launches into a teary-eyed account of Jesus' sacrificial death, just ask, in all seriousness, "What sacrifice?"
© 1997 by Judith Hayes
Back to Main Page Back to Previous Columns