In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lots-of-fun Jesus Christ Superstar, the crowd (
in the guise of journalists at Jesus’s arrest) sing
“Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, who are you what have you sacrificed?”
It is part of a certain subset of Christianity to focus on the sacrifice of Jesus. I’ve heard sermons preached with statements such as “Jesus gave up everything, even his life, for your sins.” or “It cost God everything to restore relationship with you.”
Now, I’ve written (and excoriated) penal atonement theory before (the idea that God sent himself to kill himself to atone to himself for the sinful nature he’d created in human beings in the first place).
But that’s not the purpose of this post. I want to ask about the sacrifice of Jesus. Was it costly?
This paradox has been pointed out by lots of people before, but I’ve been thinking about it this evening. What did it actually cost?
Before launching into some thoughts, let me just say that I may slip into language describing what Jesus did and felt here. Of course, everything should be prefaced with “accordingly to the portrayal of the gospels” or “according to orthodox Christian doctrine”. I’ve said before that I don’t believe these accounts are historical. I’m really interested in how these things can be understood on their own terms, when they seem to hold so little water (at least for me). So read what follows with those disclaimers in mind.
1. Jesus was fully human. And was, therefore, able to feel pain as a human. It hurt a lot to be crucified. So let’s give the doctrine this: Jesus suffered a day of agony on the cross. (Skipping lightly over the fact that many Christians, from the earliest records we have onwards, believed that Christ didn’t have a real body and didn’t really suffer).
2. Jesus has foreknowledge of his coming death. So it would have been a really miserable run up to his execution. For reasons I might share another time, I know a little about this feeling. And it does suck.
3. Jesus also knows about his resurrection. So, like childbirth, he would have known that after a period of intense pain, fear and powerlessness, the outcome was really joyful, and ultimately wonderful.
4. Jesus doesn’t die. He doesn’t end. I’ve said before that “being raised from the dead” means you didn’t die, by definition. You may have experienced heart-death, but we’ve long since left that concept behind as a culture (interestingly except for some highly religious countries or states that still use it). Dying is the end of a person, brain and personality death. It isn’t death if you are raised 2 days later.
So the total of Jesus’s only claim to sacrifice is pain and anguish. Now, I’m not saying being crucified is a walk in the park. But really? For the God of the universe, a finite amount of human pain followed by being raised into glory in the sure knowledge that the battle for the universe is won? That hardly qualifies as epic sacrifice, surely?
Anyone got a reasonable rationale for understanding the doctrine of sacrifice?
Edit 2010-10-15: I obviously don’t know my musicals as well as I thought. I confused the arrest song with this. The line comes a little later…