Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Killing Bulls

Unwisely, I suppose, I recently asked the pastor of our church why Jesus died. He looked at me like I'd lost my mind, and said very slowly, as though he was speaking to a small child, "For our sins?"

I rolled my eyes. "Yes, for our sins blah blah blah. But why? What is it about God that demands sacrifice?" The crux of the Gospels is that question, and so very few people ever think to even ask it. Sure, maybe Jesus died for our sins. But what in the world does that mean? Why did he even need to die in the first place?

My pastor was still a little boggled. I don't know that he'd ever considered what those words "died for our sins" meant. "Uh, think about it," he said, "I'm sure you'll figure it out."

Sure, thanks Rev. Lots of help that was. In my quest for an answer, I went online (duh), and one of the first hits on google for "why did jesus die" was this page. It's a rambling little rant about how God respects us so much he gave us free will, and how somehow that means Jesus had to die.

Call me skeptical. Actually, call me laughing my ass off. This person has huge problems understanding what 'free will' actually means (hint: it doesn't mean that a choice made by one person gets passed down to the rest of the human race, who then by definition have no ability to make that choice on their own), so his ramblings are a bit off. But it's mostly a great argument for not understanding the creation story literally.

Even if we ditch biblical literalism, though, we haven't solved the problem of Jesus. Why does God need a sacrifice? What is it about sin that needs a sacrifice to forgive? Yes, it's antithetical to God's nature, but let's think about that a little bit. It's the opposite of God. God hates it so much that he's willing to condemn you to hell for all eternity. Burning, burning hell for all eternity. All eternity. So let's just suppose (you know, for argument's sake) that God really, really hates sin. Think of it as the anti-God. If God and sin meet, maybe they eliminate each other in a huge explosion, I dunno. Anyway, God hates it.

Why sacrifice, then? If sin is the anti-God, then what is it about sacrifice that eliminates the unholiness of sin? Think about the Old Testament: bull calves or lambs were enough to atone for most sins. What magic of bulls, when they're sacrificed, makes the anti-God (sin) okay enough that God can be fine with it? How does this forgiveness thing work, if such a metaphysically insignificant thing as a bull can somehow transmute the anti-God into something that God can be okay with?

If I stop and try to answer that question honestly, I know that there's nothing metaphysically special about bulls. It's the repentance behind the idea of sacrifice that matters. The bull is just a physical manifestation of someone saying "Look, I screwed up, and I'm sorry." But the fact remains: repentance alone isn't enough. Plenty of really poor ancient Jews repented of their sins, but they weren't considered clean again until they could scrape up the money to make the appropriate offerings. So repentance alone isn't enough; there's something about sacrifice that gets to God in a difference way than a simple "I'm sorry".

What am I getting to here? Well, what we think about sacrifice is inextricably related to what we think about Jesus. Wait, let me rephrase: what we think about sacrifice just is what we think about Jesus, if we accept the truism that "Jesus was the lamb of God; a sacrifice for our sins". So explaining what's special about bulls is central to the question of explaining why Christianity matters: both are answers that get at the question of why "I'm sorry" isn't enough for God's forgivenenss, and sacrifice by death is required.

I think that in the future, I'll post more on a few of the schools of thought surrounding the metaphysics of sacrifice in the Christian paradigm. Now that I've started reading about it, there are some interesting things that people have said, and that I want to say in response. But this post is long enough, so I'll leave off here for now.