Part 1 – Why the Sacrifice of Jesus Is…and Isn’t Enough: Purple Pills and the Cross of Christ

4 Year Olds & Moon Gods

The other day my daughter asked me if the moon was God? Immediately, my mind drifted off, thinking of the number of cultures throughout history, even in Israel’s time, when people believed that the moon was a god. Before I lost the moment, I engaged her question with a theology of Creation from the book of Genesis. Moon God In the Bible’s creation story, the moon is referred to as a “light” that governs the night rather than as the moon, its deified identity in solar religions. Scholars believe that not naming this “light” was an authorial decision to avoid any confusion between the prevalent solar religions of the day with the religion of Israel’s God, Yahweh. So while I was thinking all of that, I did not explain that to my daughter. Why? Because I could still teach her that the moon was not a god because God created it, yet later I can explain why it’s no called the moon in Genesis. Leaving out the authorial intention is not wrong, it is an attempt to make the story sensible to a 4 year old’s capacity, a capacity that will grow into an ability to learn more of the complex ideas encased in Genesis’s story of Creation.

So, sometimes we teach our children foundational yet simple truths that encapsulate a fuller version of said truth, but only in latent form. We teach these things to our children anticipating the trajectory of their ability to learn more and more complex ideas once they have the capacity to do so. God in Christ, has done the same thing for human societies throughout history and continues to do so with us. The Cross is one such story.

The Whole Truth And Nothing But the Truth: Unhelpful to God?

Awhile my back, I bought an extendable baton for our family walks to ward off food-seeking monkeys. My daughter asked me on the walk if I could protect her with the baton. As her father, I immediately responded with an emphatic YES! Of course papa would keep her safe and protect her from all harm. I then drifted off to my imagination, where I conceived of multiple scenarios where I wouldn’t be able to protect her. Though I would try, there are some things that I just could not protect her from. But I knew that if I explained to her that in certain scenarios there would be nothing I could do to protect her, though true, it would be immoral to communicate this to her.. Why? Because she doesn’t have the capacity at 4 years old to embrace the complexity of that truth without it harming her. For the sake of her development and emotional security, I had to tell her something that wasn’t altogether true, knowing that later in her life, she would have the capacity to absorb this truth; a truth that would eventually protect her, though today it would harm her.

So, sometimes we tell our children age-appropriate “lies” in order to raise them well. Later, they will find out we weren’t necessarily telling lies, but we also weren’t telling them the truth, and it will be ok. God has done the same throughout history in communicating his purposes to Israel through the sacrificial system he instituted, which he eventually did away with.

Nailed to the Cross

Believe it or not, this is what Good Friday and even Easter Sunday are about. They are about God doing for us that which we have a capacity to embrace, but also intrepidly that which we don’t have a capacity for all at the same time.

Easter Eggs, Holy Saturday & Hanging Out In Hell

Today is Holy Saturday, the day between the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. While this weekend tends to make sense to Christians, there are some things that just don’t make sense, or at least shouldn’t. Let’s be honest, when Peter writes that after Jesus died, he went to preach the Gospel to the dead in hell in the book of 1 Peter, we have no idea what to do with that. We tend to stick with what might make sense, Friday’s crucifixion and Sunday’s resurrection, rather than Jesus hanging out in hell on Saturday. Or take for instance the fact that the Zoroastrian religion, which predates the Easter week by far, also has an egg dying tradition to commemorate new life and the New Year called Nowruz. It is celebrated near the same time frame (March 21) as Easter weekend. Many have refuted this connection, as they probably should, given that the Easter egg has many origin stories. I only write this to point out that there are many stories which mirror the narratives in Scripture and in our Christian tradition, many of which predate or coincide with the claims of Christianity. It is not enough to ignore them or dismiss them, given that the questions they produce are real and aren’t going away. Even if the Nowruz egg decorating tradition has nothing to do with why Christians celebrate Easter with the same tradition, the questions surrounding why are not going away and we would be foolish to ignorer these conversations.

Similar Stories & The Mustard Seed of Difference

Recently, the website www.liberalamerica.org posted an article highlighting 5 near (not exact) identical myths to the story of Jesus that all predate the story of Jesus. The article focused mostly on aspects of Easter weekend found in other religions that mimic the role Jesus played. This website isn’t the first to propose these similarities, but the response to their article caused quite a stir, suggesting that there are many people out there who still don’t want to know these things, even if they are true. Or, we don’t want to figure out why these remarkable connections exist.

The connections shouldn’t surprise us really. There are many aspects to the Jewish and Christian traditions that are not unique to them – even those that God himself instituted. Circumcision, the OT sacrificial system, our creation story, our flood story, the design of the Jerusalem temple, etc. The list goes on and on and on. Most of Israel’s religion either borrows, mimics or is surprisingly similar to the other religions that surround it and predate it – even many of the ways (not all) that Yahweh performs theophanies or describes himself mimics the gods of the ancient Near East, particularly El and Baal. In fact, the names of God like El Elyon, El Shaddai, Elohim and El and a few others belonged to the Canaanite high god El long before Israel made use of them for Yahweh. While it might be unsettling, it shouldn’t surprise us that the story of Jesus borrows and mimics in the same capacity hundreds of years later. Thankfully, the way in which the Jewish and Christian traditions copies or appropriates the religious memes of others also includes a “mustard seed” of striking difference. That “mustard seed of difference” is remarkably similar and consistent throughout the development of the Jewish tradition developing into the story of Jesus. Knowing what that difference is, is the key that unlocks all of these mysterious connections and for our purposes, the Cross.

Transcending & Including our Scapegoats

This weekend for Christians is the most important time of the year for our faith. The cross and the empty tomb are symbolic and real events that our entire faith revolves around. For many years I reveled in the cross and its meaning. That Christ would die for me to take away my sins has been and continues to be a reality that stuns me. It’s incredible. That was until I started reading about the role of sacrifice in other religions and then bumped into Rene Girard. Girard’s sociological ideas that violent societies look for scapegoats to unleash their violence onto in order to regain an era of peace, which then only lasts for a time, leading to a never ending search for scapegoats struck me to my core. His suggestion that sacrifice is a concept created by humans, rather than their God, to achieve redemption and peace unsettled all of my previous assumptions regarding the God I followed. By no means am I letting go of anything I believed previously about the Cross, but I’m not staying put either. It is becoming more and more clear to me that instead of God needing the Cross, we needed it. Where do I go with this? In the words of Richard Rohr, I am learning to “transcend and include”.

Purple Pills & The Cross of Christ

So then if sacrifice is not God’s idea, how is it that God sent Jesus as a sacrifice for my sins and why would God incorporate a sacrificial system at the center of the faith He was the progenitor of? If sacrifice is a bad idea to begin with and only accomplishes peace for a time rather than a peace that passes understanding and is perpetual, why would God incorporate a sacrificial system into the center of Israel’s faith? Why would Christ be required to be a sacrifice for our own sins?

Matrix-Red_and_blue_pillWhen I first began to question this dynamic, I felt like Neo from the Matrix. The blue pill represented the static beliefs I had been taught about the Cross and had held, and still hold as true and sacred…but I began to feel like that wasn’t enough. The fact that the problems in the world could not only be traced back to a “Fall” by the first humans deconstructs our notion that the Cross is only about redeeming humans. There was a rebellion against God’s desires long before humans ever came onto the scene and the Cross had to deal with that problem as much it did the problems created by humanity’s rebellion. The Cross has to be about so much more. As a result, the red pill began to represent the direction that Girard offered in understanding the Cross, sacrifice and a whole new matrix of truth surrounding them that I hadn’t even conceived of yet. But there was a problem. The problem was that I didn’t see God extending a blue pill in one hand and a red pill in the other, as if there was a choice. Rather both pills were being offered at once, to be taken together, i.e. when the Cross finally arrived, it was neither red or blue, but both.

 

In Part 2, we will look at where the “Mustard Seed of Difference” takes us after Easter.

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  • Fred

    It’s unfortunate when people perpetuate the “near-identical myth” myth which does not bear up under scrutiny. As ONE example, there is no ancient evidence that Osiris had “12 disciples,” etc, etc., etc. Most Osiris’s “similarities to Jesus” are complete fabrications that originated in the late 1800s from “self-educated Egyptologist” Gerald Massey.

    • Fred, thanks for you important contribution on the importance of scrutinizing claims like the ones made on liberalamerica.org

      I wondered whether or not to use that source, as there are other more credible ways to discuss mythic memes that predate, yet are found in the Jewish/Christian story. I chose this one because it was more recent and was aimed at a popular audience with questions surrounding these connections that just aren’t going away. I am convinced that we need a better approach than simply dismissing these memes by using the debunking research you mentioned for two reasons.

      1. While some of the research into why other predated religious stories had Christ like elements in them have their problems, there are some that don’t. The concept of a dying and rising god or god man is an age old mythic meme that is found littered throughout many mythic ages. The god or god man has been known to be a son of a father god. This mythic meme is well documented and finds expressions in many mythic corners of the earth and history. e.g. – Jesus walking on water was an ability to given to the Canaanite son of the high god, Baal. We don’t have to look far to find connections like the ones hinted at in the article that you are rightly scrutinizing. So while your point is taken and accepted, it is a minority concern in relationship to the broader conversation regarding the scale that mythic memes operate on and how often their elements are found scattered throughout the Christian story.

      2. While, the research you mentioned will help to clarify why not all of these near-identical connections actually stick, the questions that popular audiences have about why the Jewish and Christian stories have at least some connections with mythic constructs that predate them are valid and need better answers than are typically offered. This needs to happen in charitable dialogue with an openness to evidence as it is discovered and presented. This hasn’t happened that much. Simply stating why these assertions about near-identical myths based upon smarter-than-you research will not do the work we think it should do. There’s a better way forward. I hope you read my next post to hear my proposal.

  • Eric Karloski

    Nathan, I enjoyed your post. I have two responses. We could see Rene Girard’s “findings” as false, couldn’t we? This is also a valid choice. I’m always amazed when I hear people talking about all these things we have to consider and balance and both/and…etc. Making a choice to discredit some choices can be a good and true thing.

    Secondly, we can hold to the idea that “The Fall” came from the rebellion of the first humans. Remember they were stewards of creation, meaning they represented creation. Another way of saying it would be to say they where the covenant kings of creation. Their rebellion becomes creations rebellion in that the life and health of creation is determined by their covenant representatives.

    In this same line Christ, being the second Adam, his actions represent all of creation, like the first humans actions represented creation.

    • Thanks for stopping by Eric. Some good food for thought. First in response to your comment regarding Girard. You are right to point out and I understand that there are those who don’t buy his theory or can only accept nuances of it. As such, scrutiny of his views is apt and for those who cannot accept them, one way to take his research. I would offer that those who don’t accept his take on things would still need to offer, from anthropology, sociology of religion and a few other disciplines, reasons for the emergence of sacrifice and its eventual dismissal from major world religious centers.

      As with any research, we would also have to concede that he may be wrong if he is and that following his lead is possibly the blind leading the blind. While that has the possibility of being the case, as with anyone with his seminal influence, I have found that after 11 years of interacting with his work and arguments, they have stood up under scrutiny and are more compelling than any other offers on the table right now. That being the case, as a teleological realist/critical realist, I have to remain open to a more accurate representation of the truth while I maintain my hold on what is adequate for now. For now, Girard is adequate and the most compelling for this topic.

      While there is some non-dualistic (both/and) thinking present in my post, there is also a clear rejection of reification as a way of thinking and engaging these ideas. It seems clear that reified versions of how to engage the Cross, more specifically the sacrificial component of it, is being challenged as a choice to reject. Much of this will become clearer in part 2 so I hope you return for the next installment. That may clear up some of your concerns.

      As far as the “Fall” discussion, I don’t disagree with the trajectory of your discussion, but I would want to alter your terminology. Christ and Adam are not necessarily “representative” of all Creation so that shared culpability with every aspect of the cosmos is a result. Every aspect of Creation suffered under Adam’s choice, but is not bound with his guilt as much Creation suffers under his guilt (Rom 8). I’m not sure where you are pulling that from biblically, but am open to being corrected. I just don’t see in Scripture that Creation as a whole becomes culpable through Adam’s sin. Humans are included in that, but not every aspect of creation is. I’ve actually never heard anyone argue that the entire cosmos would be culpable alongside Adam. Creation suffers, but is not at fault.

      The role that the serpent plays in the garden narrative represents an earlier rebellion to God. In the first Creation story, there is a created element that opposes God long before humans take the scene. This is a problem the Cross deals with if we are viewing it via Christus Victor. In the New Creation, there will be no element to Creation that opposes God in any form.

      If the serpent’s rebellion pre-exists human rebellion, that means the Cross has to accomplish something to deal with that rebellion before humans or human rebellion existed. Therefore the Cross cannot only be about human rebellion. It is also about a cosmic battle (Christus Victor) that predates humanity’s existence. On top of that, we are below the angels as Scripture accounts. The rest of Creation is below us. If your logic about the culpability of the rest of Creation due to human rebellion holds, then we would have been culpable before Adam’s sin based upon the rebellion of what the serpent represents.

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