Sacrificing Baby Jesus

Here is the Penal Substitutionary Theory of salvation held by most Evangelical Christians:
  • God is perfect
  • Imperfection is called ‘sin’
  • Therefore God can not tolerate sin
  • God made humans to keep him company
  • But humans, given free will, inevitably  sin
  • So God requires sacrifices to clean humans of their sin
  • So God decided that animal sacrifices may help
  • Though the smell of burning entrails originally pleased God, they were never truly enough so he decided that he would create a perfect sacrifice
  • God procreated a perfect boy-god with a human girl — his son, ‘Jesus’
  • God let Jesus be sacrificed to clean sin
  • Now a Perfect God can keep company with Sinful humans but only if they believe this whole story with their whole heart

Well, that is one version of Christianity. See my listing the other Atonement theories.

But I don’t understand something about this version of Christianity:  If it was all about this sacrifice, why are Jesus’ teachings so important?  Why not just have the bad guys snatch up the baby Jesus and dash him against some rocks and Splat! the work is done.

I will guess at the possible answer:

Look, God works in different ways at different times — we can call these “dispensations”. When God, using his own mysterious clock, finally decided humans needed a perfect sacrifice, he also decided we needed better teachings than the ones he supplied in the Old Testament – the old dispensation. And he figured that three years were all that his son would need to give the teachings.

So, any Christian scholars want to help me on this one? Was Jesus put here on Earth to serve as a sacrifice or teach or both? And what teachings were so important to put off dashing baby Jesus against a rock?  To me, it seems obvious that there are a few different Jesus’ in the gospels — here I illustrate a teaching Jesus and a salvation Jesus.  The problems seem obvious, but nothing some good theological twists should not be able to remedy.

Notes:  This post was inspired by combined effect of two posts — both by nonbelievers, both criticizing Republicans:

  1. Someone was making fun of Mormons so as to delegitimize the presidential contended Mitt Romney.  Seriously?  As if Christianity is less bizarre and Protestant candidates are safer?  I wrote a post called:  “Your god is weird” where I likewise went rabid when I heard someone making fun of Sikhs.
  2. Someone spoke about the importance of Jesus’ teachings.  Even Atheists use Jesus to make a point.  Similarly, I wrote a post called: Was Jesus a Great Teacher?

Also, you may enjoy this short post:  Gospel debates: Where atheists miss the boat


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

16 responses to “Sacrificing Baby Jesus

  1. I hadn’t thought much about that particular angle, but here’s what I’ve come up with after pondering for a few minutes regarding the importance of Jesus’ teaching:

    1) Redefining the Messiah and Kingdom of God: In my studies of the Old Testament prophesies, they were past due by the time of Jesus, so part of His teachings explained a different Kingdom of God than had been anticipated, and a somewhat different Messiah as well, tweaking the old prophesies (and non-prophetic verses in order to become prophesy) here and there as necessary.

    2) Stress on intent rather than content: This is the favorite tune of many Christian circles today, that the Pharisees and Sadducees were too legalistic as opposed to trying to understand God’s intent behind the laws, and instead of “judging rightly” based on the circumstances at hand. Obey God in spirit, not in letter. Worship God from the heart, not from the book. Of course, one of Jesus’ “selves” sometimes contradicted this. 🙂 (By the way, I personally suspect at this time that the real Jesus was involved in part of this message, given how much it contradicts God’s Law.)

    3) It’s up to you.: Building on the second point above, as I see it, this was the primary wedge used to split from the old sacrificial/ritualistic Temple system, as this message naturally evolved into or implied that you didn’t need the priests to become right with God, instead you could, or maybe even needed to, take care of it yourself. In a manner of speaking, Jesus’ sacrifice made everyone into their own priests, and His teaching was that you had to repent (change your evil ways and act righteously) for you, yourself, to be saved.

    So, to me, these points are where Jesus’ teachings become critical to the Jesus story. I would not extend that accolade to all of His teachings, including much of those which have granted Him the label of being a “good teacher” today.

  2. Nick

    You’ve discovered a great criticism of this theory of atonement. Bishop NT Wright does a great piece on the way some theology had tended to divorce Jesus’ teachings from his crucifixion. Most Christians either believe that the death was the point, and the teachings were just filler or that the teachings were the point, but they got him killed. Wright expounds how a full understanding of the Kingdom of God would include both. If only I could remember the name of the article…

  3. Paul D.

    “If it was all about this sacrifice, why are Jesus’ teachings so important?”

    If you hadn’t noticed already, fundamental evangelicals don’t give a shit about Jesus’ teachings — especially not the ones about being peacemakers, loving your enemies, etc.

  4. I can’t help but think of the line:

    “If you meet your Buddha on the road, kill him!”

    Some Christians take this kind of advice quite literally.

  5. @ The Wise Fool:
    (1) Did the Jesus in all 4 gospels talk about the same messiah? Jesus himself, it seems, did not expect himself to be the messiah — that seems later added. He thought the “son of man” would play that role, no?

    (2) But “obey every letter of the law” is also in the gospels. Apparently James and Peter were later divided deeply on this issue for decades, no?

    (3) Your number three wasn’t Jesus’ teaching, I think, this was later writers, no?

    @ Nick :
    Yes, the Atonement theory here is the Calvinist Penal Substitutionary theory. It is not on my favorites list for theology speculation.
    Concerning Bishop NT Wright – I bought a book of his and listened to a few videos and was not too impressed by the man, though I hoped to have been. I think you are right that most Christians take either/or. But doing otherwise, seems to have its own twists. As you’d suspect, they all must have twists from my perspective.

    @ Paul D.:
    Actually, I have known many fundamentalists in my day — most care a great deal about the gentle teachings of Jesus. But you are right, the vocal minority push for his harsher teachings and of his daddy Yahweh.

    @ Andrew G :
    Good joke effort. Interestingly, Christian mystics probably would not be uncomfortable with the same sacrilegious attitude of some Zen teachers. But mystics among Christians are very few.

  6. @Sabio
    1) Heck, as you well know, even within any single Gospel it did not seem to talk about the same Jesus consistently! So any answer I give you is a bit subjective, and there are probably scholars who could argue otherwise. However, all four Gospels cling to John the Baptist (JtB)as being the forerunner for God Himself, and/or the Messiah prophesied in Malachi 3 and Isaiah 40. If we cut JtB out of the Gospels, then Jesus could become the forerunner for the “Son of Man,” but with JtB there, Jesus would seem oddly redundant, at least from a prophesy standpoint.

    2) Yeah, I was aware of the slight irony in my statement there, as I even have a post about that very section of Scripture. 😉 At this point, it seems to me that (unlike in the Epistles) Jesus’ teaching is not mutually exclusive in this department. Yes obey the Law to the letter, but also consider the intent. So, for example, if a woman was coerced into an adulterous affair because the life of her kids were being threatened, you don’t kill her for being an adulterer. And go ahead and rescue your goat, or heal on the Sabbath. Etc. Some Epistle writers took far too much liberty in this concept, in my opinion. (The clean/unclean food is the only open question/exception I know of at this time.)

    3) Not entirely. Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15, and Luke 5:32, for example, all show Jesus pushing for individual repentance. In fact, Matthew and Mark effectively start Jesus’ ministry with a call to repentance. (Curiously, the late Gospel of John never mentions repentance.)

  7. I never quite understood this, even back in my Catholic days! And that says something because the mass is the reliving and re-enacting the sacrifice of Christ each time it is performed.

    NT Wright is helpful and so is Alister McGrath even though I’m not a subscriber to the theory.

    The idea is that Jesus somehow delivers and liberates you. Any logic and reason will fail if one does not first somehow feel in bondage or trapped first and foremost. So the talk of “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us..” or “For God so loved the world…” hinges upon a need for redemption in the first place.

    I have written extensively on my struggle with this idea on the ol’ Toothface blog. and I still don’t quite get it. IMHO, many Christians celebrate Christmas and then Easter, skipping right over the teachings and in affect doing what you posit and smashing the baby’s head against the rocks. That either reflects extremely poor theology or the power of Jesus’ teachings and their implications and how we’re still uncomfortable with them.

  8. @ Luke
    (1) Magic Products
    I think the Mass is more about partaking in the magical power of blood and flesh (sacrifice material), rather than the ACT of sacrificing. There are Christians that re-enact the actual sacrifice – even by tieing themselves to a cross. Which reminds me of Shiite Muslims in my Pakistani town beating their backs till they bleed in re-enacting the martyrdom of their prophets. Humans are so silly.

    (2) NT Wright
    I never found NT Wright anything but confusing and confused.

    (3) Bondage
    Yeah, buying into “you are a filthy, pathetic sinner” and “god is perfect and hates sin” and “if you ain’t clean, god won’t love you”, are good pre-requisites to buying into several of the atonement theories. To bad people teach their kids that crap. Because such intuitions do NOT come naturally.

    (4) Teachings of Jesus
    I am approaching this theme more and more. I think the idea of “Jesus’ Teaching” is loaded with problems. But it will take a lot more research and posts to get there — if I ever go. The summary: I don’t think his teachings were anything special and many were bizarre and many were just wrong and bad. But it is amazing how we overlook the faults of people we decided to love and who are on our team. I see it in politics all the time. Humans, are so sill. (see #1 above)

  9. Yup, the system is dumb and so are the people that follow them. Glad to know that there’s one person out there who is above it all. Last time we had one like that who was confusing and contradictory and sort of rude but likable all at once was about 2,000 years ago. Wait…a…second…?

  10. @ Luke
    Wow, you are really into the: ‘speed-read, reply what I feel, leave my mark and ignore content’ mode, aren’t you?
    Lots of apocalyptic teachers, moral teachers, political rebels have appeared in the last three thousand years. Yawn. Determining what is of value is no light task.

  11. Nope, just don’t agree with your premise despite how clever you think it is. Got the content and know where you’re heading despite your attempts to micro-manage and get a response you want.

  12. (1) What premise would that be?
    (2) Asking someone to actually respond to the post shouldn’t be considered “micromanaging”.

  13. 1.) See #’s 2-4.
    2.) I did respond, see the initial feedback 1-31-12, on topic and on task. Where I departed was your response to my comment.

  14. The initial theology was not “my premise” — it is merely the position of “Substitutionary Theory”.
    Ah, yes, it was the comment that you departed on.

  15. Nick

    You made the statement in a comment that feelings of bondage are not natural, but exist only because certain people are taught them as a child.
    My parents were liberal enough with my upbringing to avoid telling me anything that really created such a negative emotional loop to feel like bondage. I was never told that I was a filthy sinner or that God would not love me. I didn’t really hear those positions formally until probably my high school days. But I honestly have felt bondage. I feel inadequate when faces with ultimate reality, or with the amount of tragedy in the world. I certainly am not advocating the theological position that encourages such feelings. In fact in my spiritual life, I constantly remind myself that such feelings merely block my path. Nonetheless, I seem to naturally have the sense of my ultimate worthlessness, and I think others might too (ie existential angst- the potential meaninglessness of life). When praying or meditating I sometimes feel overwhelmed with my bondage to old habits and ways of living and desire freedom. Even outside Christianity, aren’t all dharmic religions based on the idea of our bondage to reincarnation? The Tao Te Ching’s 12 chapter is my favorite. It seems to express some sort of feeling of bondage and release.
    To me it seems that feelings of inadequacy, bondage, and worthlessness are quite natural to humans when they think deeply.

    Your remark appeared more polemic than anything else, so l apologize for criticizing it, but perhaps you may practice a generous translation on such expressions in the future, for they are genuine.
    I also apologize for straying away from the topic of the post to a degree, your comment merely seemed to warrant it.

  16. @ Nick:
    That is true. Depression, lack of self-confidence, anger and other emotions can create a feeling of “bondage” if the mind links the cause to some ‘other’. I am perhaps biased because I have a rather optimistic disposition, whereas my wife is inclined the other way which often puzzles me.

    Much of Buddhism would perhaps see the human mind bound by delusion — the result being reincarnation, but they would not say “bound BY reincarnation”. Some Buddhists don’t believe in reincarnation at all.

    So, you said,

    To me it seems that feelings of inadequacy, bondage, and worthlessness are quite natural to humans when they think deeply.

    But after considering your input, I would disagree but agree enough to say:

    Some people with dispositions of depressed or anxious or experiencing these feelings may be tempted to use models of bondage or inadequacy when they can not understand them as feelings without causes.

    Feel free to criticize my remarks any time — especially if you feel I am merely being polemic — a trait I wish to avoid.

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