Why Did God Kill Jesus? The Scandal Of The Cross By Robert Gorham Davis PART I A few block

Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

Why Did God Kill Jesus? The Scandal Of The Cross By Robert Gorham Davis PART I 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 in death. 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 ignore? 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 rabbi. 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 their own. 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, "Nehushtan." 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 bushes. 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 USA (608) 256-8900 ----------------------------------------------------------- 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 Moses. 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 own time. 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. For more information, write or call Freedom From Religion Foundation P. O. Box 750 Madison, WI 53701 USA (608) 256-8900 ------------------------------------------------------------


E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank