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?

The Gospel of Slacker Jesus

If you haven’t yet read True Christianity, I’d recommend it. It sets up much of what goes on in this post.

Imagine if you will a Jesus Christ who did not walk the land, preaching a message of peace and love and empowerment. Imagine instead a Christ whose only special trait was being the totally human, totally divine son of God. The newly found Terminally Ill Sea Scrolls give us an intimate look into the life of this Jesus who may never have been. The following is an excerpt, freshly translated from those ancient tomes. I bring you, exclusively, the Gospel of Slacker Jesus.

AND it came to pass in the land of Jerusalem, in the basement of the parents of the Lord, that the LORD Jesus Christ and his apostles did sit upon the couch. The Lord did lick his fingers, for they were orange, and the flavor was good.
“My brothers,” said Jesus. “Verily, I say unto thee, this bag of Cheetos is empty. My stomach, the stomach of the Lord, is like unto this empty bag: empty. I ask, who among you will go forth into the wilderness to fetch more snacks?”
James did speak first. “My Lord, I did purchase snacks the last time, and we did partake, and lo, they were good.”
“Yes James, I remember,” said Jesus.
Judas lamented, “My Lord, I cannot purchase snacks, for I have only thirty silver pieces in my purse.”
Jesus told Judas to cast down the pieces of silver, that they may contribute to the buying of snacks, and so Judas did cast down his purse.
“My Lord, it is Peter’s turn,” said Matthew.
Peter denied before them all, saying “I know not what thou sayest.”
“Indeed, my Lord,” said Philip. “It is Peter’s turn.”
And again he denied with an oath, “I do not know whose turn it is.”
“Surely it is thy turn, for thy speech betrayeth thee,” said Judas.
Then he began to curse and swear, and immediately the cock crew.
“Verily,” said John. “I hear the cock.”
“You did say cock,” said Jesus. The apostles laughed, for the word was humorous.
“My lord,” said Thomas. “It is not Peter’s turn. I say unto thee that it is Matthew’s turn. Of this I have no doubt.”
Jesus spoke. “Go forth, then, Matthew, for my munchies do multiply while we remain idle.”
And so it came to pass in those days that Matthew gathered up the silver and tied up his sandals and did go forth into the wilderness to become a fisher of Cheetos and Hostess Snack Cakes and Mountain Dew. And the apostles would feast, and they would thank Matthew, and it would be good.
And after a while, but before Matthew returned, Mary came down the stairs, and when she saw her son, the Lord Jesus Christ, she was troubled at his lounging.
Then Mary said unto the Lord, “Jesus Christ! Thy father’s house is a house of order for all guests, but ye have made it into a den of filth! Thou shalt pick up thy wine glasses and thy candy wrappers, and thou shalt take out the garbage, or thou shalt not take the donkey this weekend, young man!”
“But mother,” said Jesus. “I do have a date with Mary, and I do need the donkey!”
“Then ye will clean this basement, or ye will be grounded.”
Jesus wept.

As our scholars continue to translate the content of these Terminally Ill Sea Scrolls, we will continue to bring you more of this lost Gospel.

The point of the Gospel of Slacker Jesus is not to belittle people’s religious beliefs, nor is it to insult or cast doubt upon the existence of Jesus Christ. It is meant to remind people that Jesus’s teachings are the important part of Christianity. It is not enough that Jesus be born to a virgin and die for the sins of humankind; what made Jesus noteworthy was his message. If not for his message, he never would have caused trouble for the Romans, and he never would have been crucified for the world’s sins. Slacker Jesus, who does not act and does not spread Christ’s message, is not a Jesus worth worshipping. Anyone can be born, anyone can die, what came between is what made Jesus matter. That’s what will make you matter too.