The Implications of Historicizing a Theological Sacrifice

I’m not against someone emulating a figure of their faith they believe to be pious and inspirational, especially if it is something akin to what Albert Schweitzer had done.  I’m not even against an adherence of certain Biblical principles, those which do not advocate hate or intolerance (or bodily harm) towards another.  But this news story below is a consequence of taking the Bible to a degree of ‘literal’ that is nothing short of tragic:

SEOUL, South Korea — The body of a man with his hands and feet nailed to a wooden cross and a crown of thorns on his head has been found in an abandoned stone quarry, South Korean police said Wednesday.

A man wearing only underwear, with a wound on the side of his torso and nylon strings tied around his neck, arms and stomach, was found crucified Sunday in Mungyong, about 115 miles southeast of Seoul, said Chung Ji-chun, chief of the violent crime section at Gyeongbuk Provincial Police Agency.

Two smaller crosses were erected on each side of the cross he was nailed to, Chung said.

Police also found nails, a hammer, an electric drill, pieces of wood and instructions on how to build crosses inside a tent near the scene, Chung said.

An SUV belonging to the dead man was found nearby.

via Body found crucified, wearing crown of thorns – World news – Asia-Pacific –

Unfortunately, this is nothing new.  Crucifixion is reenacted every year by devout worshipers.  But this shows nothing short of a lack of understanding of the theological sacrifice of Christ as portrayed in the Gospel narratives.  His death, his physical death, is only important theologically because he was resurrected.  But this raises implications that need to be addressed.

First and foremost, God came down to earth, became flesh, died, and rose again to take his seat again at the right hand of God (or as God, depending on whether you’re a catholic or not).  In the realm of time, his suffering was a fraction of a fraction of a second.  And if one believes in the historicity of this event (I do not), then while we can admit it may be a magnanimous gesture, this is not a true definition of a ‘sacrifice’. I hear this thrown around a lot, that Jesus ‘sacrificed’ himself to save mankind.

Let’s step back for a moment, away from Christian kerygmatic tradition, and look at this another way.  You want it to rain because your crops are dying, the land has been in a drought.  So you go out to your field and look around at your livestock, drag back a goat, and you kill (known as ‘sacrificing’) the goat and offer it up to your deity.  A few days later it rains.  Ask yourself this: did it rain because you ‘sacrificed’ the goat?

And is this really even a sacrifice?  When we talk about heroes sacrificing themselves, they often expend their life for a purpose which brings about a direct result, immediately.  A soldier will sacrifice his life by falling on a grenade to prevent injury or death to his friends.  A fireman will rush into a building about to collapse to save people from certain death even at the cost of his own life; that is sacrifice.  But how is the act of physical death, even a brutal one for the sake of a magnanimous gesture, be considered a sacrifice?  Especially since (a) he is/was God (according to some traditions)?

Now let’s bring this back to the Passion narrative.  Jesus is slain by officials, wherein he gives himself as a sacrificial offering to God (himself, actually, if you believe that sort of thing), dies and, according to tradition, goes into hell (this is why Christian universalism fails, theologically) to free the spirits of the dead and, with Jesus, the righteous are resurrected.  Now mankind doesn’t descend into Sheol, as it once had, but, if righteous enough, will resurrect spiritually into Heaven (and if you’re a catholic, the bodies of the dead will be reanimated in the future).  Theologically, this sacrifice works.  It works because it has nothing to do with the physical world.  The death of the flesh has nothing to offer the world of the spirit.  The problem comes into play when one attempts to blend the two worlds together.

Then one must confront the inevitable problem:  how does the death of the flesh alter the world of the spirit?  And how does the death of the flesh effect the world of the flesh?  This is the part of the passion narrative which makes absolutely no sense.  We return back to the idea of the sacrificial goat; if you sacrifice a goat to God, as stated in Leviticus 16, what does that death accomplish?  How is the decay of matter effecting the outside world?  How is that same decaying matter interacting with the world of the spirit?  What influence can that possibly have and, more importantly, why would you want that action–the decay of matter–to be your link to something supremely amazing?  If you r answer is, ‘well, it’s a mystery’ you’re not really thinking this through.  But that is the point, isn’t it?

I can see the theological significance, and I would stress that I am not trying to dissuade readers from not believing in that particular function of the narrative.  The issue is that people truthfully believe that the physical act of dying on the cross had an actual impact on the fleshly world we live, and even on the spiritual world.  In a way, this is, in my humble opinion, directly related to the devaluation of the theological message behind the narrative and directly the result of the greater focus given to the death of Jesus by both scholars who can’t seem to get past it and the media (al la Mel Gibson’s Passion…) who can’t stop making it as important, violent, and bloody as they can.  If the death was most significant, Mark would have ended at 15:41.  They believe this so much that they impersonate the act of crucifixion.  And what does that say about a society who finds the value of the Passion narrative in the violent suffering and brutal death of Jesus rather than the celebration of rebirth, the renewal of spirit?

When people question why historicizing the narrative of the Gospels is a problem, I will direct them to this incident.  When you take a theological story, historicize it, and extrapolate the theological message, while telling your parishioners to emulate the narrative, you’re only setting yourself up for more and more news stories like this one.

11 Responses

  1. The concept of Jesus’ sacrifice has become less and less coherent to me the farther I’ve gotten from church. I vaguely remember it making intuitive sense when I was a believer, but once I tried to fit it into a rational scheme as a non-believer, I was baffled.

    You make a very interesting point about the interaction of the spirit/physical realm. Of course, if one believes in an all-knowing architect god, the distinction isn’t quite as important. Whether there’s a spiritual/physical “law” comparable to say… Newton’s physical laws, or whether God just waves his magic wand every time someone exsanguinates a farm animal, it’s still God doing precisely what he wants.

    This, of course, reduces things down to a simple truth: God arbitrarily wants dead things before he’ll do nice things.

  2. I would not call this historicizing the theological but ritualizing and internalizing the “sacred” and creating a (fatal) mystical union. It is anything but “history” but someone trying to efface history and recreate within oneself the primordial story.

    Unless of course the poor guy didn’t fall afoul of gansters with religious issues from their childhoods.

  3. Jim,

    That might just be semantics. Overall my point is when you put your faith in an incident in a narrative, and your faith is wrongly focused (i.e. on the death rather than the rebirth), and you seek to act out on this to portray a narrative event, this will happen. It’s like when people attempt to walk on water. These are narratives; replicating them or reenacting them is foolish. But this is what happens when a person gets their information about the Gospels from the wrong people.

  4. When ever i watch Jack Ass, i laugh about the disclaimer to not “do this at Home’. If you are the sort of person that would contemplate have a mule kick you in the nuts, some ones reasoned plea for you not to probabely won’t resonate. I’m not sure what this guy hoped to accomplish by nailing (himself? how do you do this without and accomplice?) Personally i don’t think theology of the sacrifice of Jesus works on any rational level, but i suppose it made sense to a lot of people depending on their world view. I try to stay out of rationalizing Christians beliefs for them, though i have reasons for liking Mark. It is sort of like the appreciation most people have for someone who died in pursuit of a noble cause, and how folk like MLK live on in the memory of their commitment to their goal. But again, I think most Christians want jesus’ death to be utterly unique.

  5. We certainly agree in most respects when it comes to think, Mike.

  6. It’s not really semantics, Jim is correct. Do you mean ‘foolhardy’? I’m not aware of fool-hearty, but googling it I see it appears on blogs and is also mentioned as being a misunderstanding of ‘foolhardy’. I wonder if it is a neologism which has become popular over the internet, originating in the mispronunciation of ‘foolhardy’. Interesting linguistics!

  7. Steph, it’s semantics because Jim is arguing the same thing I am, but using different language to express it. I don’t understand why you always want to be such a contrarian all the time. Though, I thank you for catching my slip-up. I corrected it.

  8. Semantics? When I read it, it was a bit like calling an apple a pear. And Jim called it an apple. ;-) Anyway some book with a face sent a message to me – happy birthday for Saturday 14th!

  9. Thanks! Even though it’s Wednesday the 11th. ;-)

  10. oh dammit! I forgot already? Oh well, eleven is a much more significant number. Fourteen, apart from being two magic sevens, is just dull. HAPPY BIRTHDAY WEEK!

  11. […] The Implications of Historicizing a Theological Sacrifice My perspective on the historical figure of Jesus: I’m agnostic about the historicity of the figure of Jesus. […]

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