Death, Resurrection, and Sacrifice

Wow, jumping right in the deep end, aren’t I? The reason I started this blog is to go through the various problems I had with reconciling Christian theology as a believer and how that eventually lead to my accepting the label of atheist. After putting the concerns of how people in the Old Testament got to Heaven on the back burner, I moved on to perhaps the most important part of Christianity.

Why did Jesus have to be sacrificed for us to be saved?

There’s a lot to unpack here so let me start with a few definitions.

Soteriology is the theological term for the study of the requirements of salvation. In the churches in which I was raised, this really meant that the only path to heaven was to believe that Jesus died, was resurrected, and that his sacrifice paid for the sins of all humans past and present. I am fully aware that there are other doctrinal positions on the requirements of salvation, whether there are any unforgivable sins, and whether it is your actions or merely your beliefs that affect your entrance to Heaven. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m only going with this particular theological interpretation as it’s the one I feel that I can best represent.

Merriam-Webster defines Sacrifice as the destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else in general and an act of offering to a deity something precious in particular.

Interestingly, the only secular definition of Resurrection on the Merriam-Webster online dictionary is the state of one risen from the dead. I suspect that’s because we don’t have any examples of resurrection in the natural world but let’s just go with that definition for now. I want to avoid religious definitions to start so we can agree on the usage of these words before adding any specific theological considerations.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the real question stated above. Why did Jesus have to die for us to be saved? The Christian apologetic answer for this is that he was the perfect sacrifice and the only possible sinless creature that could serve as a substitute for all human sins. Okay, great. Why? Specifically, why does God need sacrifices at all? The most popular answer seems to be that God cannot abide the presence of sin and that “the wages of sin are death” and therefore, death is required to wipe away sin and allow believers to approach God.

Following this line of reasoning, every time a believer needed to approach God by visiting the temple or even in prayer, they needed to first cleanse themselves of sin. Since God had already said not to kill (other humans), the only option was to sacrifice an animal (see the story of Cain and Abel for why plants don’t count, though I suspect it also has to do with how ancient Jews defined “alive”).

Apparently this system was not going to work indefinitely so God decided to send a perfect sacrifice that would work for all time (past, present, and future) so we didn’t have to sacrifice animals anymore. Hence, Jesus. Here’s where we get to the fundamental question again… Why? What part of a perfect God that abhors death enough to forbid it in his commandments requires death in order to approach him? Why bloodshed at all? “It’s part of God’s nature” was the closest I ever got to an answer for that. If God is all powerful (or “maximally powerful,” as modern theologians seem to prefer) then didn’t he make the rules? If he didn’t make the rules but is subject to them, isn’t he not omnipotent? Who did make the rules if that’s the case?

Simply put, either God created the requirement for sacrifice–in which case he chose to send Jesus to die before he created the universe, or he is subject to the requirement and is therefore not all powerful. If it’s the first, is it really even a sacrifice? If I design a system that has a specific cost as part of the design, is it a sacrifice to pay it? What if I can get that cost back after three days? Is a temporary cost really a sacrifice? If so, why wait for millennia to pay it? Didn’t God know from before creation that he would need to send Jesus eventually and wouldn’t it have been easier to sacrifice him in the garden of Eden? I have never heard compelling answers to any of these questions that weren’t simply assertions or extra-Biblical interpretations (to put it politely).

Better yet, why not simply forgive sins without the death in the first place? Why not just create humans without sin? That’s a question about free will that deserves its own post.

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