The concept of sacrifice – as taboo as it is – seems to be at the heart of human experience.
Having children, for almost all animals, involves a high level of sacrifice – of time, energy, resources, and emotion. From a survival standpoint, raising offspring doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as they are a drain on a being’s abilities to adapt and react to its environment.
And yet, the desire to have children is present at varying levels in almost all of us. The point isn’t why that desire is present, but that it is present, and that means sacrifice is an intrinsically valued thing deep within us.
It’s interesting that nearly all ancient religions involved some form of sacrifice. Whether it be the stereotype of sacrificing a virgin to appease the gods; or bulls, lambs, cows, or various other animals; or captured war victims; or food or other objects; and whether it be the religion of the Aztecs, Mayans, Canaanites, ancient Greeks, Germanic tribes, Minoans, Vikings, Native Americans, Indians, or Israelites, it appears some form of sacrifice is inherent to nearly all early religions.
In different forms, sacrifice is still inherent to nearly all religions today (time, money, effort, etc.).
Some kinds of sacrifice were attempts at controlling the uncontrollable (weather, hunting conditions, success in war) by appeasing the gods. But why was it seen as the means of achieving said appeasement?
We can’t come up with a comprehensive explanation from a strictly naturalistic standpoint.
And that makes sense, because science is fantastic at explaining processes, but by definition can’t venture into realms of meaning (philosophy, psychology, theology). And for whatever reason, people find meaning in sacrifice – sacrifice and commitment are the heart and soul of real love.
So how is sacrifice involved in Judaism and Christianity? It actually ties in with what they believe is the main problem with humanity.
The Judeo-Christian diagnosis of humanity is that we have a sin problem. Sin is a frequently misunderstood thing, commonly thought of us just “bad stuff,” like murder, lying, stealing, etc.
It’s actually a far-broader concept that corresponds to the heart of the Judeo-Christian understanding of human identity.
The idea is that God created humanity to be governors of the created universe – our job is to act in God’s place as stewards of the world (read: take care of; not “lord it over”).
But the way we’re supposed to do this is through God – our primary purpose is to worship (which means love / interact / be in relationship / focus on / be connected to) God, and through our connection to Him via worship, He works through us. We don’t actually do anything in and of ourselves as stewards; God works in and through us.
Well, it didn’t work out that way.
The thing with love is, since it’s a commitment, it’s a choice, which means if you want someone to love you, they have to choose to love you. Therefore we can choose things to love other than God, and the original mistake humans made was choosing to be God themselves – we believed God was holding back on us, so we thought we could do a better job.
The Greek word for sin, “hamartia,” translates as “missing the mark,” and that’s pretty much the essence of what sin is – it is anything that throws us off the track of what we were made to do and be; it’s anything that distorts our identity; anything that sets ourselves up as God.
It’s an identity-distorter.
So if you’re God, you have a problem. You created humans to be a certain thing and to be your kids (basically), and they’d rather rebel against you like terrible teenagers.
But like your teenager, if you’re God, you do love them even if they say they hate you, so how do you rectify the situation? If you see your teenager doing something to destroy his or her life, what would you do?
I know if it was literally life-and-death for my kid, I would try to save her from herself.
Here’s where sacrifice enters the equation. Imagine you’re God and you want to help humanity, but they are doing the equivalent of stabbing you in the back by rebelling against you. It’s kind of hard to have a relationship with someone if they are constantly slapping you in the face; it takes two to have a relationship, just like it takes two nations to agree not to have a war for there to be peace: if one wants to fight, it will fight.
So God obviously has to get rid of this rebellion problem, but how in the world do you do that if you don’t want to wipe out humans and you still really would like for them to do what they were made to do, but you can’t “make” them do it because they have to choose it?
You make the consequences of the rebellion go away, that’s how.
But how do you do that? God’s answer was that, first, He’d give humanity a case study: He’d find a guy who would choose to love Him (Abraham) and from that guy create and teach a group of people about who He really is.
When other people choose to observe that nation and learn about their story, then they can see God and learn about what kind of Person He is and how He interacts with us.
And one of the many things God starts teaching this group is that the way He is able to nullify human rebellion is by “covering it over,” as it were, with life that isn’t in rebellion against Him.
In a way, it’s like a debt that has to be paid – there’s a rebellion going on that has to be neutered, and to do that you have to take the effects of the rebellion away (the ultimate goal is to still end the rebellion, but in order to eventually do that you have to first take away its power).
But there is no human life that isn’t in some way in rebellion; we’re all at war with God at some level.
So how can humans eliminate the power of rebellion when everyone is in rebellion, and there’s no non-rebelling human covering on offer, not to mention that every human would have to find some sort of eternal covering that would do the trick for their entire lives (because we do keep choosing to rebel, don’t we?)?
So God does this with His case-study people: He tells them the rough equivalent of, “OK, so when you want to be in My presence for worship, you gotta be innocent of rebellion, and since you can’t do that on your own, you gotta get something else that is innocent and use it to cover you so you’ll be seen as innocent long enough to do what you have to do.”
The only innocent life available is non-human, so God tells His people they can use the essence of the life of certain animals – their blood – to cover them for a time.
This is abhorrent to us today, and I think that’s actually part of the point – rebellion is ugly, disgusting, costly, and devastating, though we often don’t see it that way.
Sacrificing life forces us to stare at the true nature of what we see as innocuous, to realize that this sin-thing is a serious matter with serious consequences.
Nothing can quite drive this point home more graphically and starkly than staring at blood and gore, the epitome of debasement and inhumanity.
But as the Israelites and God are well aware, this doesn’t actually take care of the problem at its source.
God’s answer for that is a shocking one that necessitated the institution of sacrifice to allow His people to have a foundation to understand what must ultimately be done – humanity must face the consequences of its own rebellion for it to be dealt with once and for all, but there was only one way that could happen if humanity was to continue to exist.
There is no innocent human life, nor any human life that innately has the ability to atone for the rebellion of all humanity.
That is, there is none unless God Himself becomes a human and maintains his full divinity while at the same time being completely human. A human like that…an innocent human with the eternal innateness of divinity…a human like that could, if said human chose, eternally cover over the entire multitude of humanity’s rebellion.
That human is Jesus. That sacrifice is the cross.
The cross cannot be understood apart from this understanding of sacrifice and its purpose. It makes no sense without it, and it’s still an incredible thing to believe with it.
Though it does makes sense in a profound way that if love demands commitment and sacrifice by its very nature, atonement would demand the same.
That’s the backdrop for the cross and what it means.