The Sacrifice of Jesus?
Billions of people around the world identify themselves as Christians of one sort or sect or another. Among the core beliefs of the the vast majority of Christians is the idea that Jesus' death on the cross constituted a sacrifice and that Jesus was martyred and thus died fighting for a cause. In this hub I want to discuss differing opinions on Christ's nature and how they relate to the question of whether or not Jesus' death actually constituted a sacrifice at all.
The Nature of Christ
First I want to briefly address the different sides of the issue of Christology. It is clear from the writings of the early church leaders that in the centuries following the supposed life of Christ early Christians held widely varied views on Jesus. Some believed that Jesus Christ was fully a God in his own right but was merely appearing as a man, this belief is called Docetism. In this belief Jesus' physical form was nothing more than a realistic recreation, an illusion of the body of a man only convincing enough to interact with us mere mortals.
According to others within Christianity Christ may have simply been a man who was granted supernatural abilities or a divine nature after a certain point and still others believe that Jesus was the actual son of God but that his fully divine nature was not realized until after a certain point. This belief seems to be supported by three of the Gospels. Mark, Matthew and Luke (commonly referred to as the Synoptic Gospels) suggest that Jesus' ministry and miracles did not begin until his baptism by John the Baptist at which time a voice from Heaven was heard and Jesus received the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. In fact the Gospel of Mark, widely agreed upon as the earliest Gospel to have been written, actually begins with John's baptism of Jesus.
Outside of the Christian perspective there are, of course, other options to explain the nature of Jesus such as the possibility that Jesus himself never existed at all or the idea that Jesus was merely a man and moral teacher whose sayings and supposed deeds were blown out of proportion after his death.
Fully God AND Fully Man?
Eventually the church decided that at the moment of incarnation, when God was made flesh and “dwelt among us” Jesus achieved something called hypostatic union. This means that Jesus was able to be fully God and fully man at the same time with no apparent contradictions to between the two. This is one of the biggest examples of having your cake and eating it too in the history of religious belief. Here we have contradictory and irreconcilably different views being presented in the Gospels of just who and what Jesus was being smashed together and brushed under the carpet.
Suddenly it doesn't matter that Jesus mentions the fact that only the Father, God, knows when the world will end, and that he himself doesn't know, because even though Jesus is fully God Jesus has also limited himself by being incarnated into a human body. Yet this is the same Jesus who heals the sick miraculously, who multiplies physical matter impossibly in the form of loaves and fishes and who in many verses knows the thoughts and feelings of those around him.
Gethsemane, Jesus' Humanity on Display
One of the most fascinating passages in the Gospels in the scene at Gethsemane recorded in the three synoptic gospels (for some reason John, the later of the three Gospels, omits the scene entirely). In this scene Jesus shows human emotions such as distress, anxiety, and perhaps even fear, regarding his eminent betrayal and crucifixion. One version of the story, contained in Luke, actually has Jesus sweating drops of blood. Jesus is so distressed according to Luke's Gospel that God sends down an angel to comfort him.
A lot of emphasis in modern Christianity today is put on forming a “personal relationship” with Jesus. Jesus was said to want to be our friend, a great counselor and our closest ally in our walk through life. The idea of Jesus as a compassionate and merciful God who wants nothing more than to help guide you through life was bolstered by the idea that he died so that you didn't have to. Jesus death on the cross was to take the fall for the crimes of ALL humanity. According to what I was taught as a Christian Jesus lived a perfect human life and that made him the perfect blameless sacrifice that God needed.
One question that occurred to me even as a believer was the question of whether Jesus was capable of sinning. While nearly everyone I asked in the Church and in my family claimed that Jesus wasn't capable of sin I found myself believing that, in order for Jesus' perfect life to have any meaning, Jesus HAD TO BE capable of sin. If Jesus was going to be considered human, in any form, than he had to be capable of sin, even if his moral nature was strong enough to keep him from sinning.
Indeed Jesus' temptation in the wilderness by Satan seems like a worthless passage of scripture if Jesus wasn't in any danger of giving into that temptation. Jesus goes into the wilderness and is famished and fatigued and thus in a weakened state, the perfect target for Satan's temptations. Jesus' refutation of Satan's attack is meaningless if Satan never stood a chance to begin with. Jesus has to be vulnerable to be human and that vulnerability must extend to sin.
So the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane is important for establishing Jesus' humanity but it also provides a slight problem for those who believe that Jesus was fully divine as well. In this scene Jesus is praying to God and if Jesus IS GOD than who, pray tell (see what I did there?) is he praying to? If Jesus is praying to God the Father what does he expect to accomplish? Surely God is not going to stop the crucifixion from taking place... is Jesus having second thoughts? Doubts? It sure seems like Jesus is in need of a pep talk from God, or is, perhaps, trying to get God to change his mind entirely.
A Meaningful Sacrifice?
So finally I want to get to the point of all this, the sacrifice, the death of Christ that is meant to redeem the world. The question I want to propose to those who believe that this story actually happened the way the Bible describes it is, “if Jesus was fully God, what did he sacrifice?
After his death Jesus returns to life on the third day in the same body he was crucified in. In a sense he does forfeit his mortal life, but only for a few days, reclaiming that same physical form upon his resurrection. So in the process what does Jesus lose? What does he actually give up? Does he return to life incomplete in some way?
In actuality Jesus returns to life in glory, with angels heralding his absence from the grave and an eventual ascension into Heaven where he will rule in unimaginable splendor for all eternity. Far from a sacrifice, this seems more like a promotion where Jesus is moving up to that deluxe apartment in the sky.
One Gospel has Jesus hanging on the cross and claiming that, at any moment, he could call down a legion of angels to rescue him (and presumably bring wrath upon his enemies) but that he chooses not to do that. This is likely meant to make Jesus look more noble, and indeed if Jesus was actually going to stay dead, to give up immortality of any kind and annihilate his very existence to save humanity, it would be meaningful.
Instead Jesus sacrifices only a few days of his mortal life and returns to the same corpse he left behind even letting Thomas touch the wounds in the Gospel of John. So Jesus has lost NOTHING permanently and thus has actually sacrificed nothing. The only way in which the deified Jesus is a sacrifice is in the blood-thirsty sense of the Old Testament, where God simply needs blood to be spilled in order to forgive sins. Yes Jesus is often compared to this kind of barbaric sacrifice, the so-called Lamb of God, nailed to a cross and brutalized to sate the blood-lust of a barbaric God who, for some bizarre unexplained reason, cannot forgive people without ritualistic violence.
A human Jesus, a mere mortal moral teacher trying to offer moral and spiritual guidance to his peers, who then gives up his life for his ideals, is a fantastic story, a powerful sacrifice even if his teachings are imperfect and his ideas questionable. A human Jesus makes the narrative that much better, even if so many of the stories contradict the idea at the very least the idea of a human Jesus makes the sacrifice meaningful.
The question of Jesus' divinity has plagued Christianity since it's inception and has yet to be satisfactorily settled. The Gospels cannot agree on whether Jesus was fully God or fully man leading to an insultingly poor compromise claiming that he was both. To skeptics like myself this disagreement within the Gospels and amongst (especially the early) Christians makes the story even more questionable.
In the end Jesus being a God renders his supposed sacrifice as anything but. The endlessly repeated claim that Jesus “died for our sins” is meaningless if, in fact, Jesus didn't stay dead. If you're a Christian reading this and you disagree please explain why Jesus' sacrifice has meaning and help answer the biggest question of all regarding Jesus: just what does he save people from exactly?
Thanks for reading.
Biblical Scholar Bart Ehrman on How Jesus Became God
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