On Suffering and Sacrifice

Denis Loubet, host of my favorite Podcast, The Non-Prophets, has a question he likes to ask Christians. Here it is, from a comment he left on Pharyngula:

If you could go back in time and successfully rescue Jesus from the crucifixion, would you do it?

This doesn't look like a quarry...I think it’s a really interesting question, particularly since he (last I heard) has yet to receive an affirmative answer from a believer. It’s no difficult task to find some of the responses (just search posts on the alt.atheism newsgroup), and it’s amazing the sort of linguistic gymnastics they pull to justify saying “no,” usually invoking restrictions on free will (and thus ignoring the “successfully” qualifier in the question). Some candidly invoke the point that dying on the cross was the purpose of Jesus’s life, suffering for mankind’s sins and so forth. In other words, ends justify means, and so forth. It’s all right to let an innocent man suffer terribly, when it’s in your power to stop it, so long as it means that believers thereafter will get their divine rewards. I don’t know about the rest of you, but that seems a pretty twisted morality to me–not least because a supposedly just God is the one who supposedly required this situation.

I’ve argued before against the theology that sees the crucifixion as the most (or only) important part of Jesus’s life. While I don’t necessarily agree with the wishy-washiness of some of those early posts, I think my point stands: Jesus (assuming he actually existed) would have been utterly forgotten if he had been just another Jewish criminal executed by crucifixion. No one remembers the names of the men who were supposedly crucified alongside Jesus, nor does anyone know the names of the men crucified on Maundy Thursday or Nameless Saturday. While I’m not sure there’s much more than luck involved with why people remember Jesus at all, as opposed to one of the other messianic figures who ran around at the time, I have little doubt that he’d be less than a footnote in the history books if he hadn’t been gathering followers and preaching a moderately apocalyptic anti-establishment message.

Denis’s question, I think, approaches that problem (or a similar one) from a different perspective. The theology which says “the point of Jesus’s life was that he had to die” asks us not only to consider what it would have been like if he lived a different life, but also if he died a different death. Even if you could successfully rescue Jesus from the cross, basic biology suggests that he’s going to die at some point (and presumably, if the stories are to be believed, wake up at the end of the weekend). Wouldn’t he still be dying for everyone’s sins if he died of old age?

“Oh ho!” Says the apologist. “You’re missing the point: Jesus needed to suffer for our sins!” Okay, fine then. I submit that being beaten for the better part of a day and hung out to dry is less suffering than what a person can accumulate over a lifetime of, say, 65 years. Would Jesus have suffered any less if he’d died of a slowly metastasizing cancer? Would Jesus have suffered any less from acute appendicitis or a burst gall bladder? Would Jesus have suffered any less if he’d died of infection due to passing a couple of large kidney stones without anesthesia or antiseptic? Jesus could have lived a lifetime of suffering for the sins of mankind, if he hadn’t died on the cross.

And what about the time before his suffering-ridden death? Perhaps he could have refined his message, actually written things himself, left some kind of evidence of his existence, so the future people he’d be dying for wouldn’t have to believe with such ridiculously small amounts of evidence. Perhaps he could have fallen in love (plenty of room for suffering there too), raised a family of his own, and actually experienced some semblance of a normal human life. Perhaps he could have put those amazing divine miracle-powers to wider use than the occasional wedding, speech, and isolated resurrection. Perhaps he could have distributed loaves and fishes and wine all across the Middle East; perhaps he could have healed all the ill among the Romans and Pharisees; perhaps he could have made allies of his enemies by giving them direct and indisputable evidence of his claims. I don’t mean to second-guess the Maker’s divine plan, but it seems like it could have been a lot more wide-reaching. Then again, maybe knowing about his inability to do all these things would have caused him to suffer as well…but how much of that omniscience did Jesus retain in his human form? Would this death have been an unexpected hitch in his greater plans? Or would it have been the known end, as various stories and theologies would suggest?

And even if a youthful death would have caused that suffering, then why wait ’til he was 33? Why not have him strung up at 20, before building his ministry? Why not have the priests drag him out of the temple when he was twelve, certain that he was a heretic and potentially possessed by demons, and stone him to death then and there? Perhaps his mother and adopted father would join in with the mob, fearful of his behavior, of being duped by what was obviously an emissary of Satan. Certainly that would have been suffering as great as any at the hands of the Roman soldiers.

So why the cross? Why young, but not so young that he had not been able to build a following, nor so old that his following were large and self-sufficient? What’s the importance of that specific death?

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4 Responses to On Suffering and Sacrifice

  1. Duncan says:

    Some candidly invoke the point that dying on the cross was the purpose of Jesus’s life, suffering for mankind’s sins and so forth.And yet they still say that that poor bastard Judas is damned to the lowest circle of hell for all eternity for his (relatively modest) part in it…

  2. Dunc says:

    Whoops… Don’t know why I used my full first name there… I’m going to blame auto-complete.

  3. the chaplain says:

    Dunc: good point about Judas. That was one that always bothered me when I was a believer. BTW, tradition has it that the name of the repentant thief was Dismas (as if you really are interested).

  4. Doubting Tom says:

    It’s a little odd that I’m doing a thread necro on my own blog, and a little ironic that I choose to resurrect this post, but I remember seeing the Chaplain’s comment when he first posted it and thinking I wanted to respond.Anyway, I should have known that there were traditional names for at least one of the criminals; given how many such things I already know have accumulated around the religion, it seems like that’s something that would have received some attention. Every character is someone’s favorite, after all. And I am interested in that sort of thing, just as I’m interested in the names of Odin’s ravens or what the twelve labors of Hercules were. I’ve always been a mythology buff, and atheism has given me the opportunity to enjoy the Judeo-Christian mythology in that context as well. I just think it’s a shame that so much of the interesting stuff (like the multiple gods of the early Hebrew and Canaanite tribes) has been jettisoned over the centuries and more or less lost to history.

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