Saturday, June 9, 2012

Christian salvation and why it makes no sense.

I'm sure it is no surprise to any regular readers that there are a lot of things I find disagreeable or downright immoral in the bible.  From the downright frightening way all of the Abrahamic religions advise we treat women to ludicrous insults hurled at unbelievers.  There is a lot more in the bible to dislike than there is to like, but one of the most troubling problems from a philosophical standpoint is the concept of salvation.

Now many of of my readers, specifically those who don't give a shit about religion or aren't huge history nerds like me, may not know that much about this topic, so let me give you a short primer into how Christian salvation works.  Christians all generally agree that salvation is a very important aspect of their religion, and they all agree that Jesus plays a part in that salvation.  What Christians sometimes disagree on is exactly how salvation actually works.  If you are not knowledgeable about Christian theology this might seem simple, but actually an entire category of theology known as soteriology is devoted to discuss this very question.

As it turns out Christians have come up with more than one answer to this question, Calvinism and Arminianism, for instance end up with very different answers to the question of whether or not humans play an active role in their own salvation.

Now, the specific thing I want to talk about is one aspect of the Christian salvation concept that is generally shared by all traditional theologies, substitutionary atonement.  There are a lot of liberal theologians who have rejected any form of substitutionary atonement, but most Christians sitting in a pew on Sunday believe in it. To be clear there are several different types of substitutionary atonement which you can read about here.  However, the two that are generally preached by most fundamentalists are called penal substitution and satisfaction theoryAnselm proposed satisfaction theory, and penal substitution was proposed by Calvin and other reformers as a modification of Anselm's model.  Both of them, however, suffer from a flaw I find rather problematic. 

To really understand these models work one has to go back to the old testament.  See, in the old testament God had a very strict set of rules, but he knew that people would mess up from time to time so he implemented another set rules governing how people could repent and get forgiveness for various breaches of the law.  The manner in which people were granted forgiveness almost always involved animal sacrifices.  For a good description of  these practices you can turn to a lot of places in the Pentateuch but Leviticus Chapter 1 is a good place to start, it pretty much continues on until chapter 9.  The rules were clear, if you committed a sin you killed an animal to atone.  The type of animal and the ritual involved depended on the sin and how wealthy the person in question was.

The reason why this relates to Christ's death is that substitution atonement views his death as an extension of these animal sacrifice.  See, these little animal sacrifices could clear away one sin, but God taking human form and offering himself up as a human sacrifice as a being with no sin could pay the price once and for all.

In the new testament Hebrews Chapter 9 describes it this way:
And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.  (Verse 22)
When I was a believer I found such things comforting, but as I began to doubt my religion I noticed something about this narrative that really began to disturb me.  This system seems rather like all the other religious systems in the middle east at the time, ritualistic sacrifices to appease a deity, rather like a magic spell when you think about it.  The descriptions of the old testament laws as well as the description in Hebrews seem to suggest that the power of forgiveness is contained in the blood.  One had to spill the blood in a particular way, and often sprinkle the blood on an altar.  It seemed very much like all sorts of practices from other religions that I would, and still do, dismiss as crazy.

Ritualistically killing animals to get the rain to return or to gain favor with a deity in an oncoming war.  These sorts of practices were exactly the sorts of things that Israel was doing, there was no major difference.  So if this system is so absurd, it is reasonable to conclude that even if there is a creator god he probably had nothing to do with it.  Finally since the system of sacrifices that Christs death is resting upon makes no sense, then the death itself makes no sense. 

The notion that the all powerful creator of the universe would require a ritualistic blood sacrifice to in order for us to find favor with him again is laughable.  Perhaps it was believable by people who genuinely thought that those same sacrifices could bring back the rain after a drought or help one country win a war with another, but scientific analysis has squashed those ideas long ago.  Cut open an animals throat and let it bleed out on an altar and all you have is a dead animal and a bloody altar.  No rain, no military victory, no favor with omnipotent beings, and no salvation.


  1. It was not to 'gain favor' but to pay the penalty for sin: death.

  2. That is a difference that makes very little difference to me. The concept of sin within Christianity is rooted in the assumptions that god is real, and that he cares about my actions. Paying the "penalty for sin" is just a form of currying favor with god. Since there is no such thing as sin without god.

    It also doesn't change the fact that christian soteriology is an extension of Jewish blood sacrifices. It doesn't matter if you word it differently it still looks like blood magic. (and my experiences playing dragon age suggest that blood magic is bad) But seriously, if you read the descriptions of the ritualistic sacrifices ordered in the bible, Christians reading those in any other book would conclude the people doing that were part of some satanic death cult, somehow it gets a free pass in the bible.

    I'll go with Robert Ingersoll's thoughts on this.

    The doctrine that future happiness depends upon belief is monstrous. It is the infamy of infamies. The notion that faith in Christ is to be rewarded by an eternity of bliss, while a dependence upon reason, observation and experience merits everlasting pain, is too absurd for refutation, and can be relieved only by that unhappy mixture of insanity and ignorance, called "faith." What man, who ever thinks, can believe that blood can appease God? And yet, our entire system of religion is based upon that belief. The Jews pacified Jehovah with the blood of animals, and according to the Christian system, the blood of Jesus softened the heart of God a little, and rendered possible the salvation of a fortunate few. It is hard to conceive how the human mind can give assent to such terrible ideas, or how any sane man can read the Bible and still believe in the doctrine of inspiration. - Robert Ingersoll

  3. Dylan,

    Many students of comparative religion, anthropologists, and sociologists *are* able to note the differences. Even as an atheist, you should realize how these things are studied - scholars are supposed to do their best to try and get inside the ancient person's 'thought world' and 'meta-narrative' - they try to 'live' in the space that is their 'conceptual framework'. When one does this, they will see the discontinuity the Hebrews had over and against other ANE peoples.

    If you would like to learn more about this, I suggest 'The Bible among the Myths' by Dr John Oswalt (an OT/ANE expert). It helps the reader be more discerning about these things. Another helpful one is 'Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible' by John Walton.

    If you don't care about this, then you can go around critiquing the biblical view of sacrifice all you want but no informed Christian or Jewish person will listen to you. Why? Because you are not actually criticizing what they believe. Find one spot in the OT where you can find some version of 'blood magic'!

    An OT example is where Saul is told OBEDIENCE is better than sacrifice. An NT example is the whole book of Hebrews. But for a quick commentary on this, read Paul in Acts 17:25, where he tells the Greek philosophers "nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything."

    Still, you are right about one things: there is no such thing as sin with God.


    PS - I look forward to our Skype debate. Perhaps we can meet up at Lux or Fair Trade in the flesh beforehand?

  4. I guess I find this an odd criticism. You act like I am unaware that Christians would disagree with me. The question is, if the disagreements are legitimate.

    As an example, If I were to suggest that some behavior of fundamentalists Muslims, like forcing women to wear brukas or pouring acid on their faces is harmful to women, and is harmful to their rights. Those Muslims would tell me that they are doing those things to protect women. They believe it but they are wrong. I am well aware that most Christians would not listen to me, just as most atheists would not listen to you. That's just how human nature works and is no indication about who is right.

    Now, as to whether the practices count as some sort of "blood magic" that was indented to be hyperbole to some extent, but I have read the descriptions of how the sacrifices were preformed and I can't really see any difference in the actual way the sacrifices were preformed vs. the way sacrifices were preformed in other cultures. If you think you can offer some significant difference between those two by all means.

    I get the passages you bring, up, but as I pointed out, it was Hebrews that mentions the need for blood to atone.