Why Did God Kill Jesus?
The Scandal Of The Cross
By Robert Gorham Davis
A few blocks after its departure from Harvard Square, the bus that goes
from Cambridge to Symphony Hall in Boston runs past St. Paul's, a
large Roman Catholic church. On the rear wall of the church, high above
the pedestrians and the automobile traffic, is a statue of the
crucified Jesus, conspicuously naked, arms outstretched, head drooping
What is this image of torture and death doing on a busy Cambridge
street, where most of those who pass under it hardly give it a glance?
Is it to remind us of human suffering generally? Or to recall a unique
event which the other world religions--including Judaism--deny or
The usual answer is attributed to Jesus himself in a statement most
Christians know by heart, a statement described by Martin Luther as
"the Gospel in miniature": "For God so loved the world that he gave his
only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish
but have eternal life."
"Gave" means in effect "had crucified." But why did God find it
necessary--or rather desirable, since God is free to do anything He
likes--to use the crucifixion of His son as a way of "saving"
humankind, and giving it eternal life? No one can say with dogmatic
finality, since in nearly two thousand years of impassioned theological
debate, Christians themselves have not agreed on the answer.
Sometimes they acknowledge their failure. A recent issue of the Harvard
Divinity Bulletin contained a review of two books on the Redemption, on
how Christ's death on the cross saved humankind from the results of
sin. One of the books, by Kenneth Grayston, is entitled Dying We Live:
A New Enquiry into the Death of Christ In the New Testament.
The two books were reviewed by William W. Anderson, a graduate of
Harvard Law School who also attended the Yale Divinity School.
According to the reviewer, Grayston at a crucial moment in the book
raises the critical question, "Why should forgiveness"--that is, God's
forgiveness--"require the shedding of blood?" The reviewer goes on to
make a bold and sweeping statement of his own. Not only, he declares,
does Grayston not answer the question satisfactorily, "it is a question
that has *never* been satisfactorily answered." (The italics are mine.)
"To call the crucifixion a substitute punishment, or a sacrificial
death, or a ransom," William Anderson continues, "is merely to raise
additional questions. Why would a good and gracious God require an
innocent man to suffer and die for the forgiveness of others?"
Christians preaching Christ crucified with an air of fervent certainty
cannot answer this basic question. Or rather they give conflicting
answers which cancel each other out. Let us look at some of their
proposals to see how far they take us.
Since so many of the events of Christ's life are said to be the
fulfillment of events and prophecies in the Hebrew Bible, we naturally
look there first, and come to what contemporary Judaism celebrates as
Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. On that day, according to the
instructions God gave Moses, two goats were chosen, one for the Lord
and one for an obscure desert demon called Azazel, a demon no one had
ever seen. On this second goat--popularly and erroneously called the
"scapegoat"--were piled all the sins committed by Israelites during the
whole year--quite a burden for one poor goat to carry! Then this beast
was driven off into the wilderness, never presumably to be seen again.
The logic of the transaction remains obscure, but since--if we believe
Leviticus--God ordained it, obviously the transaction had his approval.
As happens with much religious content, the scapegoat ritual brings
together incompatible elements whose separate sources later worshippers
ignore or have forgotten. What counts is what is "hallowed" by
tradition and learned at a mother's knee or from gowned priest or
Not so with those brought up outside that particular tradition. They
approach other faiths with a rational skepticism that they would not
think of applying to their own. The Letter to the Hebrews in The New
Testament, for instance, systematically argues the superiority of
Christianity to Judaism. And what, if asked, would its unknown author
say about the scapegoat ritual? He could hardly ignore that innocent
goat's similarity in purpose to Christ. Both bear collective sins not
Naturally the author of Hebrews emphasizes differences. Christianity,
he insists, is based on the blood-sacrifice not of a mere goat, but of
a man--or a man-god--without blemish. And the sacrifice of Jesus takes
away sins, not just for a year, but for eternity--except, of course for
the not inconsiderable number of humans who at the Last Judgement will
be found wanting and will be sent by Jesus himself "into the eternal
fire prepared for the devil and his angels."
Jesus himself goes back to the Hebrew Bible to suggest he could be
identified with an even stranger object than a goat. I quoted earlier
the famous verse in The Gospel of John beginning: "For God so loved the
world that he gave his only begotten Son ..." But how many know the
verse immediately before, in which Jesus says "And as Moses lifted up
the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up
..."? What is Moses doing lifting up a serpent in the wilderness, and
what has it got to do with Jesus?
The story--not particularly creditable to God--is told in Numbers, the
Fourth Book of Moses. When the Edomites refused to let the Israelites
of the Exodus go through their territory, the weary Israelites began
complaining about God and Moses. In reprisal a vengeful God sent
poisonous or "fiery" serpents to attack the complainers. They should
have known from the ten plagues of Egypt that God could employ quite a
repertoire of punishments, not all of them befitting His dignity. He
variously caused leprosy, frogs, flies, gnats, locusts and snakes, not
to speak of the bunions he inflicted on poor innocent Job.
In this case many Israelites died from snakebite. When Moses prayed on
behalf of those still surviving, God relented and told Moses "Make a
fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when
he sees it, shall live."
"So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole." Apparently the
idolatrous magic worked! "If a serpent bit any man," the scripture
tells us, "he would look at the bronze serpent and live." A strange
procedure indeed! Not only does God's instruction violate one of the
first of his Ten Commandments, the one against graven images, but
encourages idolatry and magic, since the statue seems to have its
healing power within itself. A glance at it was all that was needed,
just as, according to St. Paul, in some instances simple faith in Jesus
is enough to save a sinner. The sinner does not have to do anything.
The reformist King Hezekiah had no doubts about the statue's idolatrous
character. When, some 500 years after Moses, he began abolishing the
pagan practices into which the Israelites had fallen, he cut down the
poles dedicated to the fertility goddess Asherah and destroyed the
brazen serpent. Not only had it lasted all those centuries as an object
of worship, with incense burned to it, but had acquired somehow a name,
The legend, if he knew of it, that Moses himself had fashioned the
statue did not deter Hezekiah. The serpent or snake figured in the Baal
religion of Canaan, but turned up in many other religions as well. It
twines around the rod of Asclepius, the healing god of the Romans. The
amazing paintings of William Blake show it (or her--for it sometimes
has woman's breasts) among the branches of the tree of knowledge. The
serpent together with Eve is made responsible for the original sin
which Adam transmitted to all his descendants, and which required the
crucifixion as cure. God must have endowed the serpent with speech just
for that purpose. No other animal could talk. Not until much later was
the serpent of the temptation in the Garden retroactively identified
with the Devil.
* * *
Putting aside scapegoats and brazen serpents as unworthy comparisons,
what can we make of the three ways of explaining the crucifixion listed
in my quotation from The Harvard Divinity Bulletin? They are (1)
substitute punishment, (2) sacrificial death, (3) ransom.
Theologians proposed these ideas at various points in the development
of Christianity, without producing convincing arguments for any of
them. The article on Salvation in the Britannica observes that
"Whereas the divinity of Christ has been the subject of careful
metaphysical definition in the creeds, the exact nature and mode of
salvation through Christ has not been so precisely defined"--which is
putting it mildly. The Church just never could decide what its central
doctrine was. Apart from dreams, visions and voices from Heaven, which
are real enough in a psychological sense, theology is mostly pure
speculation, with no evidence to back it up.
Nor could there be any such evidence. Yet despite the uncertainty a
"wrong" speculation at the wrong time, however, or submission to
"voices" not ecclesiastically approved, could get a man (or woman, such
as Joan of Arc) burned at the stake.
What then--with none decisive--were the arguments for the three most
common explanations of the saving powers of Christ's crucifixion?
Under the heading of "substitute punishment" comes the theory which St.
Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, set forth in a book called Cur Deus
Homo? or "Why Did God Become Man?" Son of a Lombardian noblemen, Anselm
had been appointed Archbishop by William the Conqueror. He completed
the book Cur Deus Homo? in Italy in A.D. 1093, after leaving England
for a time because of his sharp difference with William over their
respective powers as Archbishop and King.
Appropriately for the son of a nobleman at the height of the Middle
Ages, Anselm took a feudal attitude toward offenses against those of
elevated rank and title. Proud nobles were preoccupied, as God
sometimes seems to be ("Glory to God in the Highest") with receiving
from lesser beings the respect and honor due their rank. The height of
the rank determines the degree of "satisfaction" demanded of those
committing offenses against the honor due it.
According to the Britannica, Anselm's book became and remained for
several centuries the "classic treatment of the satisfaction theory of
redemption." Since in rank and the honor due him God is infinitely
above even emperors--though He often behaves as jealously and cruelly
as they do--the sins humankind have committed against Him are so
enormous that his honor can be adequately satisfied only by eternal
death for all humankind. In addition to their individual sinning humans
bear the weight of the original sin they have all inherited from their
common ancestor Adam. The one way they can escape that doom is for
someone of infinite goodness--i.e., a God--to be punished in their
place. But he has to be a man, too, since humankind is the offender.
Hence the incarnation, and the birth of Jesus as fully man and fully
god. In fact the whole scenario had been predestined by God ever since
He put Adam and Eve in the Garden, knowing that they would disobey
him. We are told that He wanted humankind to have free will, even
though He knew exactly how humans would misuse it--and be punished for
that misuse, a curious notion of freedom!
The question then arose whether Jesus, to be "fully" man, had to
inherit original sin. But no, he was kept without blemish, like the
Paschal Lamb. This was done through his mother, Mary. Her conception
was somehow kept "immaculate," untouched by the unfair blight put
hereditarily on all the rest of humanity by Adam's fall.
Painful public death on the cross was a form of punishment reserved for
rebels and criminals. Anselm's reasoning in asserting that God's honor
could be "satisfied" only by subjecting his sinless son to such
punishment defies what most Christians want to believe about God.
* * *
The second of the three theories characterizes the crucifixion as a
sacrifice, the sacrifice of the Man-God Jesus Christ to his father,
God. But that explanation does not satisfy either. Though most of the
religions of the world have practiced sacrifice, often on a large
scale, the question itself of why the gods want the sacrifices, what
they can "do" with them, defies adequate answering, even when nearly
two century of anthropologists and their theories are added to twenty
centuries of theologians.
Supreme gods and even minor "departmental" deities are presumed to have
great power, direct or indirect, to affect human affairs. Sometimes
they seem to act purely according to whim. This makes everything very
chancy. How can anxious humans win the gods' favor, persuade them to
bring rain for the crops or drive away enemies or keep a feverish
infant from dying?
Prayer, a verbal plea, like a child's to its parent, is one natural
recourse. Even though the gods are mostly invisible they are, for no
good reason except wishfulness, expected to hear all prayers addressed
to them, silent or spoken, and in whatever language. More
substantially, gifts can be offered, gifts that in our American society
would be considered bribes. The Latin formula is "do ut des," "I give
that you will give."
In primitive times humans supposed that the gods needed food for
nourishment or fuel. The pre-Colombian Aztecs killed thousands of
prisoners of war to nourish the sun and keep it shining. In the
Gilgamesh flood epic the gods, who had no food during the flood, gather
like flies around the sacrificed meat offered by Utnapishtim, the
Mesopotamian Noah. Safely landed after the universal flood, our
Biblical Noah imitated Utnapishtim and burned on the altar the "clean"
animals and birds he had carried on the ark for that purpose. "And the
Lord smelled a sweet savour; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not
again curse the ground any more for man's sake." God reciprocates just
as the giver might wish, a clear case of "Do ut des."
Often the sacrifice was a communal feast, shared by priests, the
offerer and God. The humans ate their share; God's share, the most
valuable parts, was burned up. Somehow, as in the instance of Noah's
sacrifice, it reached God as cooking odors. The early books of the
Bible clearly imply that God has a nose and taste buds, if no teeth or
stomach. The Torah repeats some 35 times the phrase "sweet savor" in
reference to animal sacrifices "unto the Lord."
In his directions to Moses about such matters, God is very specific. Of
the sacrifice of a ram, for instance: "You shall slaughter the ram and
take its blood and throw it against the altar round about. Then you
shall cut the ram into pieces, and wash its entrails and its legs, and
put them with its pieces and its head, and burn the whole ram upon the
altar; it is a burnt offering to the Lord; it is a pleasing odor, an
offering by fire to the Lord." For the nearly thousand years of the two
successive Jerusalem Temples, an immense amount of good meat went that
route, lost to the human economy but presumably somehow agreeable to a
God, who would consequently look with more favor on the Israelites.
Disconcertingly, however, we find St. Paul using a similar gustatory
phrase in his Letter to the Ephesians, applied not to bulls or sheep
but to the crucified Jesus. "Out of love for us," Paul writes, Christ
gave himself as a "sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour." Jesus
was not burned, but Paul's phrase identifies him with sacrificial
animals who were eaten or burnt. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is
actually made to say "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides
in me and I in him." This looks forward to the bread and wine of the
Eucharist when worshippers are led to believe they are literally, like
cannibals, eating the body and blood of God's earthly son, consumed
innumerable times a day all over the world for 2,000 years.
In the Hebrew Bible writers frequently expressed abhorrence for
neighboring peoples who sacrificed their children in "the fires of
Moloch." Yet before the reforms of King Josiah in the 6th Century
B.C.E., the Israelites made such offerings themselves, and reverted to
them later, as during the reign of the wicked King Manessah.
At the time of the Judges Jephtha, a Gileadite, had promised God that
if He gave him victory over the Ammonites Jephtha would reward God by
burning sacrificially the first person from Jephtha's house to greet
the returning warrior. The first to greet him was his only child, a
daughter, who received him joyously "with timbrels." After being given
two months "to bewail her virginity," meaning to mourn for the children
she would never have, she was duly burned up--with no demur from God.
She was not, however, eaten.
Perhaps because it comes out happily, the preferred example in the
Hebrew Bible of a father ready to sacrifice his own child is the
incident called in Judaism "the binding of Isaac." Giving no reason,
God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering,
despite his previous promise to Abraham that Isaac's descendants, as
numerous as the stars, would become God's chosen people, and with God's
help occupy by force territories not previously theirs. Abraham
prepares to obey, places the bound Isaac on a pile of firewood and
raises his knife. At the last moment a voice from heaven calls it all
off; Abraham has convincingly shown that he "fears God." Since God
apparently still keeps his taste for burnt flesh, Abraham sacrifices
instead a ram which God has thoughtfully caused to be entangled in the
bushes. Abraham names the place "The Lord will provide."
It is all a cruel travesty, since the omniscient God must have known in
advance that Abraham would pass the test. Nevertheless three different
writers in the New Testament mention the incident when writing about
the crucifixion of Jesus, despite the fact that though his flesh was
not burned, Jesus really did suffer and die on the cross. No heavenly
voice called it off and no ram was providentially tangled in the
The term "die," however, has to be qualified, because of what happened
with Jesus after that supposedly last moment. The Christian Church
survived the ignominy of Jesus's Crucifixion because the apostles
convinced themselves and others in gospels written decades after the
event (see Thomas Sheehan, The First Coming) that Jesus, though dead,
reappeared to the apostles after his crucifixion, and then took off for
Heaven to sit at the right hand of God.
If Jesus died as a sacrificial offering to God, who offered him? Just
Jesus himself? Those who ordered his execution were the Romans,
supported by the Jewish establishment, whom Jesus had deeply offended.
They certainly did not offer him as a sacrifice to God. Nor did his
followers. So there were only two parties, God and a willing but
reluctant Jesus. God sacrificed his only son to Himself to save
humanity from the consequences of sin. Christians since have tried to
make sense of this.
This essay is in three parts. Parts II and III will appear in
succeeding issues of Freethought Today.
This article is reprinted (with permission) from the April
1993 issue of Freethought Today, bulletin of the Freedom
From Religion Foundation.
For more information, write or call
Freedom From Religion Foundation
P. O. Box 750
Madison, WI 53701
Why Did God Kill Jesus?
The Blood Of The Son
By Robert Gorham Davis
In Part I of this three-part essay, I asked why Christian theologians
were admittedly so inconsistent and uncertain in their explanation of
the crucifixion. After two millennia of intense theorizing, the basic
questions are still unanswered. Was the crucified Jesus a human
sacrifice, substituted for the animal sacrifices of the Hebrew Bible?
If so, who was offering the sacrifice and why did God want it? After
examining the related scapegoat and brazen serpent rituals in the
Hebrew Bible, my essay explored two of the three traditional and
incompatible Christian explanations of what Jesus's death accomplished
and why God planned it so.
Part II In moving from sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible to the Crucifixion
as sacrifice, a problematic element is blood. According to Harper's
Bible Dictionary, "the most important part of any animal sacrifice was
the disposal of blood at the altar. Whether dashed against the sides,
or smeared on its horns, this ritual act made the sacrifice valid; in
fact it distinguished sacrifice from mere slaughter."
In Leviticus alone the word "blood" is used over seventy times. One of
its laws forbids, on penalty of death, the consuming of any blood
whatever. Thus the Old Testament God rules out in advance the later
Christian Eucharist, where the wine, if an ordained priest says the
proper words, is turned literally into the blood of Christ, which the
worshippers then drink.
Blood carries life. Shed in violence its absence causes death. It can
be a symbol of either. The first time the word appears in the Bible is
when Abel's blood cries from the ground after his brother Cain kills
him. The last time is in Revelation when Christ appears on a white
horse with a sharp sword in his mouth, "clothed in a vesture dipped in
blood." Earlier in Revelation the blood from the winepress of God's
wrath rises as high as a horse's saddle for about 200 miles.
The New Testament speaks of blood less frequently; when it does the
blood mentioned is human blood, the blood of Jesus Christ--this despite
the abhorrence of human sacrifice expressed so often in the Hebrew
Bible. The Book of Revelation says that Christ "has freed us from our
sins by his blood." Paul speaks of "redemption through his blood."
The Letter to the Hebrews spells out the sacrifice, which, along with
circumcision, Christians no longer practiced. "For if the sprinkling of
defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of
a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more
shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered
himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works
to serve the living God." "Dead works" are the laws dictated by God to
Though the New Testament makes so much of the blood of Jesus, bleeding
was not a common feature of crucifixions. It happened so conveniently
and exceptionally in the case of Jesus that John, in his account of the
incident, is suspiciously overinsistent on the truth of what he is
telling. "He who saw it has borne witness--his testimony is true."
The next day being both Sabbath and Passover, the Jews had asked Pilate
to have the legs of the crucified still on their crosses broken that
death might occur more rapidly. When the soldiers came to Jesus "and
saw that he was already dead they did not break his legs." One of them,
however, pierced his side with a spear, "and at once there came out
blood and water." The unlikely outpouring of water stands for baptism,
the blood for the new Christian covenant with God.
The Hebrew Bible never refers to crucifixion, though in 519 B.C. Darius
I, Emperor of Persia, is said to have crucified 3,000 political enemies
in Babylon --a lot of enemies! When the Romans crushed the Spartacus
slave revolt a hundred years before the death of Jesus, they crucified
6,000 prisoners on crosses that lined both sides of the famous Appian
Way. Nor in this period was the punishment used only by Romans--devoted
to public cruelty though they were. A little before the Spartacus
revolt a Judaean king and high priest crucified 800 Pharisees who
opposed his rule. This is not to minimize the very real suffering of
Jesus on the cross, but over the years tens of thousands of victims of
crucifixion suffered physically exactly what he suffered.
Those thousands of the crucified were not sacrificial offerings, nor
was Jesus. The ones responsible for his death on the cross thought him
a dangerous man, not so much for his teachings as for his behavior. At
the time of Passover, when the city was crowded with pilgrims, Jesus
and his followers had made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus
himself, riding on an ass taken without permission from its owners,
proclaimed himself sent by God.
One of his first acts was the "cleansing of the Temple." Here the
accounts in the Gospels--that in John is the most extreme--are hardly
plausible. Jesus emptied out the coins of the moneychangers, overturned
their tables, and with a corded whip of his own making drove the
sellers of oxen, sheep and pigeons from the Temple. At this holiday
time the Temple was thronged with pilgrims and heavily staffed. If
Jesus had attempted such violence alone, he would quickly have been
overcome. His violence must have been shared and supported by a mob of
followers strong enough to defy the Temple guards.
The high priests could hardly ignore such an assault on Temple worship
at Passover by someone rumored to make Messianic claims. God Himself
had instituted animal sacrifice in his elaborate instructions to Moses.
If Jewish worshippers from outside Jerusalem were to make sacrifices
most had to buy the animals and with coins acceptable at the Temple.
Jesus was in effect trying to destroy Temple worship. Such destruction
actually did occur about forty years later when the Romans razed the
Temple and expelled many Jews from Jerusalem. In Matthew Jesus is made
retroactively to prophesy this when he says of the Temple: "There shall
not be here one stone upon another which will not be cast down."
The crucifixion of Jesus was not a sacrifice, because a sacrifice
requires three elements: the god or spirit to whom the sacrifice is
offered, the sacrificer, the victim. Jephtha offered his daughter to
God; Moses was prepared to offer Isaac; temple priests as agents
offered to God the animals individual worshippers provided. In the
case of the crucifixion of Jesus his judges and executioners were not
offering him to God. His apostles did not offer him. They scattered in
fear when he was arrested.
If Jesus was sacrificed, to whom was he sacrificed, and who did the
sacrificing? Apparently God played both roles, that of sacrificer and
recipient of the sacrifice--three actually, for Christ the victim was
Son of God and part of the godhead. In a sense God sacrificed himself
to himself. Innumerable church conferences and popes speaking ex
cathedra defined difficult points of church dogma, such as the dual
nature of Christ or the assumption of the Virgin Mary bodily into
Heaven. But the crucifixion as sacrifice defied definition, since it
wasn't really what it said it was.
And even when it was described in limited and contradictory terms as a
sacrifice, there remained the problem of sacrifice itself: the
irrationality of trying to please God or gods by "devoting" to them
slaughtered humans or animals which actually could not reach the gods
except as odor, and were mostly--the animals, not the humans--eaten by
those doing the sacrificing.
In his admirable book, The First Coming, the former Roman Catholic
scholar Thomas Sheehan says that by altering the day of the Crucifixion
to make it coincide with the slaughtering of paschal lambs in the
Temple the Gospel of John made easier the identification of Jesus with
the Passover lamb or the "lamb led to the slaughter" in the famous
"suffering servant" passage in Isaiah. These verses were held to
prophesy the trial and death of Jesus, though the differences are as
striking as the similarities. Sheehan observes that no words of Jesus
"show him conceiving of his death as a propitiatory sacrifice to save
mankind from its sins."
Finally to be considered is the third explanation of the crucifixion,
that it was a "redemption," the paying of a "ransom." Here the
improbabilities and contradictions are so great that the explanation is
easily disposed of, though it had long popularity, and the word
"ransom" appears with this meaning in the Bible itself.
"Redemption" and "ransom" are transactional, commercial terms. They
mean "buying back," "buying freedom." "Redemption" is an appropriate
term for a slave-holding society and "ransom" the term for purchasing
the release of someone held hostage in disputes between nations or
political factions, an occurrence very common in the Middle East in our
Usually, as I have said, religious sacrifice has three elements, the
God or gods being sacrificed to, the sacrificer, and nature of the
sacrificial act. When the Bible employs the analogy of ransom or
redemption, four elements are required, the ransom or price to be paid,
the one paying it, the one who receives it, and the hostage or slave
who is to be freed. In Christian use of the analogy, the ransom paid is
obviously the crucified Christ, the one paying it is God, the hostage
to be freed is humankind, the one to be paid, the one who holds
humankind enslaved to sin, is the Devil.
Is it conceivable that God should have to pay a ransom to the Devil,
even when the Devil is commonly spoken of as the Prince of this world?
"Monstrous thought!" wrote Gregory of Nazianzus, in the 4th Century.
"The devil receives a ransom not only from God but of God ... And could
the Father delight in the death of his Son?"
Many seized on the idea, however, and embellished it. About 400 C.E.
Rufinus of Aquilea suggested that "The purpose of the Incarnation ...
was that the divine virtue of the Son of God might be as it were a hook
hidden beneath the form of human flesh
... to lure on the prince of this age to a contest; that the Son might
offer him his flesh as a bait and that then the divinity which lay
beneath might catch him and hold him fast with its hook ... Then, as a
fish when it seizes a baited hook not only fails to drag off the bait
but is itself dragged out of the water to serve as food for others; so
he that had the power of death seized the body of Jesus in death,
unaware of the hook of divinity concealed therein. Having swallowed it,
he was caught straightway; the bars of hell were burst and he was, as
it were, drawn up from the pit, to become food for others."
In all its assumptions this scenario is patently absurd. We remember
that in the Book of Revelation God chains up the Devil for a thousand
years, and has no trouble doing so. But we also remember that in the
Book of Job--usually to the shocked surprise of those reading it for
the first time--God treated Satan as an equal and confederate in
letting him torment poor innocent Job. According to Matthew and Luke
the Devil finds occasion to tempt Jesus three times. When Jesus rejects
the temptations, the Devil departs unscathed, vowing to continue his
efforts another time. Presumably an omnipotent God consents to whatever
powers the Devil at any time possesses.
In theology, where nothing can be proved, any idea, however extreme or
absurd, unless it is formally declared a heresy, may win adherence from
theologians or ordinary worshippers. The decision to declare a doctrine
a heresy is often the result of pressures and compromises that have
little to do with religion. Even about eternal truths the Church can
change its mind!
The idea of the crucifixion as hooked bait to catch the Devil hung on
for nearly a thousand years. In The Masks of God: Creative Mythology,
Joseph Campbell reproduces a drawing from a handbook prepared by a 12th
Century abbess for the nuns who taught in her convent. The drawing
shows God lowering a fishing line to the Devil, who squats below in the
guise of the sea monster Leviathan. Weighting the line are medallions
with the heads of the royal line of David. At the end hangs the
crucified Jesus, with a hook beneath his feet.
Campbell explains it this way: "The Devil, through his ruse in the
Garden of Eden, had acquired a legal right to man's soul, which God, as
a just God, had to honor. However, since the right had been acquired by
a ruse, God might justly terminate it by a ruse." God knew, Campbell
writes, as the Devil did not, that the incorruptible second person of
the Trinity had taken on flesh as Jesus. "Christ's humanity was thus
the bait at which the Devil snapped like a fish, only to be caught on
the hook of the Cross, from which the Son of God, through his
resurrection escaped." Such gamesmanship still had the power in the
16th Century, during the Reformation, to delight Martin Luther, whose
taste in humor was on the coarse side, as witness his scatological
abuse of the Pope.
Since Christianity had no adequate explanation of the crucifixion as an
act of God or a sacrifice to God, other explanations than these three
appeared from time to time. For instance Peter Abelard, the famed
teacher and lover of Heloise, based his own theory, not fully worked
out logically, on the love Jesus taught and on the feelings aroused in
humankind by his being martyred for teaching and exemplifying that
love. In many respects an anticipator of the later Humanists--he
published a book Sic et Non, "Yes and No," which played off theological
positions against each other --Abelard's appeal was greatest in the
18th and l9th centuries.
In his own century, the 12th, Abelard met with anything but love.
Though he secretly married Heloise after she bore him a son (named
Astralabe!), her uncle, a canon of the cathedral of Paris, had him
forcefully castrated. The draft of his first book was condemned and
publicly burned. Subsequent works, though published and well received
in some quarters, suffered a similar fate, with condemnation by the
Pope himself. Abelard had to move from place to place to escape arrest
and even attacks on his life, but he continued to write and to teach
the students who followed him wherever he went.
The concluding Part III will appear in the next issue of Freethought
Today. Last month Professor Davis was mistakenly identified as
professor emeritus at Harvard University. He taught at Harvard for ten
years (1933-43), at Smith College (1943-57), and at Columbia
(1957-78). He is currently professor emeritus at Columbia University.
This article is reprinted (with permission) from the May
1993 issue of Freethought Today, bulletin of the Freedom
From Religion Foundation.
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