The Significance of His Sacrifice

Easter is the high point of the Christian year. Christmas may be the bigger commercial and national holiday, but for Christians, Christmas is meaningless without Easter. Jesus came to die, to be an atoning sacrifice for his people. Many songs have been written to celebrate what Jesus did in offering himself for our sins. Add to that books and sermons galore and much has been said about the great and terrible sacrifice of Jesus.

But it wasn’t that great a sacrifice.

Consider what Christians claim about Jesus. He was God the Son with perfect knowledge of all events. He knew what he would have to suffer, but he also knew it would be temporary. He knew his suffering would end and that death would be brief, lasting only three days. He knew he would rise from the dead and return to Heaven. Jesus himself tells his followers in Matthew 20:18-20 that he would be arrested, condemned, killed, and raised to life on the third day.

We measure self-sacrifice by the degree to which a person truly gives of themselves. We are not inclined to speak of self-sacrifice when a rich man gives away a million dollars, but let a poor man give what he has to help others in need and we marvel. The rich man has not really lost anything, the poor man has lost much (the Bible makes the same observation with the story of the widow’s last mite).

We also don’t think much of the man who appears to sacrifice but does so knowing a greater payday is coming. A man can afford to be generous who knows he will soon be provided with plenty. So it is with Jesus. Whatever the size of his suffering, it was followed soon after by his resurrection to life and his return to eternal glory.

No one would take lightly the suffering someone would endure through crucifixion. Hundreds of people were crucified by the Romans. It was a viciously painful mode of execution. But Jesus would have known what he was in for, and known that it was temporary.

He would also know what it would accomplish, and here’s where the story takes another twist.

Christians are fond of telling the apocryphal story of a drawbridge operator. The story goes that a man once operated a drawbridge for a railroad line. He would sometimes have his son with him at work. On one such day, he had just raised the drawbridge for a passing boat when he noticed a passenger train approaching. They had missed the signal that the bridge was up. He had to immediately lower the bridge or hundreds of lives would be lost when the train ran off the drawbridge. Just before his hand reached the lever to lower the bridge, he noticed that his son had jumped down into the gears to retrieve a toy that had fallen. If the man lowered the bridge, his son would be crushed in the gears. If he did not, hundreds would perish on the train. In anguish, the man lowered the bridge, killing his son but saving many lives.

The story is intended to convey the suffering of the Father in sending his Son to die. Its actual meaning is very different. In the story, the man knew what Spock knew: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. We would all agree the man made a tremendous sacrifice, but a sacrifice that was likely warranted by the situation. Many other sons and daughters would have died. However terrible his choice, imagine the condemnation that would have come had he failed to act. If God had the power to bring salvation yet he failed to act, he should likewise be condemned.

This raises another point. In the story, everyone on the train is saved. According to Christian theology, only some people are saved. Many – if not most – go on to suffer forever in the fires of an eternal Hell. God, who is described as both all-powerful and all-loving, does not save all the people on the train but only those who manage to worship the son before plunging off the drawbridge. Christians have various ways to justify this failure to save all (one group chalking it up to God loving man’s free will more than God loves people; another group saying God had to display the fullness of his character by sending people to Hell which demonstrated his divine justice) but in the end, the Father, who could save everyone, chooses to save only some.

In the story, the consequence is an accident. The people would plunge to their deaths through an oversight. In the Bible, the consequence is an act of God. God condemns people to physical death followed by a resurrection at which time all non-Christians are sent to a place of eternal physical torment. It is no accident, it is an act of divine retribution. The train does not plunge off a drawbridge, God flings passengers into the abyss.

A final point from the story. When the man pulls the lever and crushes his son, that son is dead. He won’t be coming back. It is a final act from which there is no coming back. The man grieves because he has lost his son. In the Bible, Jesus’ death is temporary. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit all know that Jesus will rise after only three days. And Jesus was no innocent child who died through an accident – he intentionally came to die.

Consider Jesus’ death from a cost/benefit perspective.

The cost: a day’s worth of severe abuse followed by a cruel death.

The benefit: worldwide fame, and the eternal salvation of many (though not all) people:

  1. Death would be temporary; there would be a resurrection followed by worldwide fame with legions of followers for at least the next 2,000 years.
  2. Accomplishing the eternal salvation of millions if not billions of people, people who will now spend eternity in paradise rather than in Hell.

All this from one day of suffering and three days in the grave.

Is that a great sacrifice? Consider if it was just one person saved. Christians like to use the line, “Jesus would have paid the price even if it was just for you.” But consider that case. One day of suffering, three days in the grave, for eternal redemption. Since we are speaking about eternal quantities (eternity joy versus eternal suffering), there would be no way to measure the value of such an exchange. We no longer speak in terms of sacrifice but in terms of a very obvious action. If you could spend $20 to make a person’s life immeasurably better, would you give it a second thought? Would you call it a sacrificial act on your part? Would we not vehemently criticize the man who has the opportunity to do such tremendous good at such a small price yet refuses to do so?

At best, if the Easter story was true, it would be the story of a very wealthy man who made a very small sacrifice in order to do immeasurable good for some while later bringing immeasurable suffering to others.

It was no great sacrifice.

  • Eric Berglund

    A lot of this argument depends on Jesus being all-knowing. “The pain is going to last this long, the thirst this long, etc.”

    Putting myself in his place, I *might* be able to make the right choice ahead of time as an intellectual exercise, but *I* wouldn’t really be able to imagine just how awful I’d feel dying of thirst and asphyxiation. (That’s how people on crosses die, unable to summon the strength to lift themselves up to breathe.)

    The Jesus we’ve heard of would have been able to explicitly imagine just how bad the torture was going to be. And, at any moment during the ordeal, with his superpowers, he could have called the whole thing off and conjured up some water to drink, or healed himself, or numbed his own pain. So he has to sign up for the plan every second that he’s enduring it.

    That’s quite a bit of self control, I’d say–and conscious self control is the ultimate virtue in heroism.

    • Eric,

      Thanks for the comment. I get your point, but there are a few extenuating circumstances. While Christians claim that Jesus was 100% man, they also claim he was 100% God. He did not act just through human self-discipline but with all the power of the Godhead. In addition, the difficulty of the task does not change the overall layout: a very limited period of suffering compared to the size of the accomplishment. If it were true, his actions would still be admirable – I don’t want to say there would be nothing meritorious about it – but the size of the merit are limited by the very narrow scope and temporary nature of the suffering versus the size of the reward. Yes, he would have known at every moment how much he would suffer, but he also would have known how much it would accomplish and how short a time it would last. It is claimed that he was the eternal, self-existent Son of God. He had already existed for eternity. A few days – even thirty-three years – don’t even register on that kind of time scale.

  • Eric Berglund

    It’s hard for me to get too serious about this debate. The problem for all of us is that we don’t know what it’s like to be both human and god simultaneously. It’s said that dying of thirst is one of the most painful ways to go, but if he’s tempted to give up or short-cut the process, he’d have to face the fact that he’d be disappointing his dad big-time.

    The whole thing strikes me as a bit of a stunt, like David Blaine freezing himself in a block of ice. God and Jesus needed something that would impress the hell out of us (almost literally), to demonstrate both their love and their victory over death. It helped too that it could serve as an example for future Christian martyrs.

    But it wouldn’t be a good stunt if it wasn’t really hard to do. You can claim that God/Jesus/their early followers have been pulling the wool over our eyes for 2000 years about how difficult this was, but I’m reluctant to buy the “we’ve been conned” argument.

  • Yes, three days of “temporarily dead” is nothing to an eternal being. That issue has bugged me, too. Here are some other equally-sensible Jesus/death questions which have no credible answers.

    Why choose ordinary “dying” as any kind of grand gesture? Men die worse ways all the time. Wouldn’t “not dying” have been way more impressive? How about this: the soldiers try to kill Jesus, but their swords bounce off? Way more god-like. But it turns out, Jesus was pretty easy to kill.

    What was Jesus doing for three days between dying and resurecting? What do three days mean to an eternal god? Is being dead difficult? Why not just stay up on the cross, alive and well, for decades? Or centuries? That would be easy for a god, surely. Imagine the crowds he would have drawn. Instead, the Bible says in two places that he died whimpering, “God, why did you forget about me?”

    If Jesus loved humans so much, why not stick around a few hundred years and spread his gospel? Being gone is what actually-dead people do. If Jesus remained alive for a thousand years, maybe Christians wouldn’t be a minority on planet Earth. Remaining alive shouldn’t be difficult for an immortal, if he was one.

    You could put your pinky finger on a large globe and cover every step Jesus ever took. For real. Why was Jesus such a slacker? Put a map of New England over the Middle East, and the King of the Jews didn’t leave Connecticut. A super-being could teleport to every capital on the planet, even if he took his first thirty years off. Better yet, why not take a few hundred years and walk the whole globe? Normal mortals completely walk around the planet that all the time, but not Jesus. Why?

    Contradiction? Matthew and Luke both claim Herod wanted to kill the baby Jesus. So if it was the Lamb of God’s job on earth was to die, why didn’t the two-year-old god say, “Bring it on, Herod, I came to be killed”? Instead, the parents of the most powerful entity in the cosmos ran like he was a fragile human baby. Why did Matthew and Luke concoct two incompatible stories to keep Jesus from getting killed when *getting killed* is why he came here?

    Even if Jesus really had to die, (and remember who made up that rule,) why not prove it was Jesus’ choice to die by being invincible first? It would be child’s play for a god to be unkillable, and then surrender himself willingly. The Jesus story, as told, is flatly unimpressive for a super-being.

    John and Luke both said Jesus waited until he was 30 years old to start his ministry. Yes, even the Bible admits Jesus didn’t do anything noteworthy for 30 years! Let me say it again, what better things did Jesus have to do for thirty years? Why is literally 90% of Jesus’ life a complete, utter mystery? Too dull? To ordinary? Why?

    The word “Jesus” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible or any other written record on Earth prior to his birth. So much for prophesy. But hey, if Jesus was so important, why didn’t somebody think to write a single word about him during his whole lifetime? Literally nobody who actually met Jesus was impressed enough to write down so much as a verb. Even religious Bible scholars admit that not one word in the Bible was written while Jesus was alive.

    That’s God’s master plan? Or an accident of pre-literate ancient mysticism?

    • Thomas,

      Most of the items you raised have answers from the theologians and apologists, but most of those answers create as many problems as they attempt to solve. I think there are legitimate responses to some of the issues you raise, but a number of these items open the door to real, fundamental problems with the Jesus account.

  • Stuart

    This was a very interesting article. I was raised a Catholic, but rebelled pretty early in my teenage years. I flip-flopped through my twenties between belief and non-belief. I lost my faith but resisted openly saying that because of reaction I would get from my family and perhaps American society. Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, et al finally gave me the courage to proclaim my atheism.

    But your article shows me how much my brain is still brainwashed by my Catholic upbringing. Although I now don’t believe Jesus ever existed (if he did, maybe he was some obscure religious crank with some followers who made up the story of his resurrection), I always accepted the premise of the Easter story as an impressive example of sacrifice by someone who knew his death was going to be very painful. Your article pops one more religious balloon that can’t really withstand calm scrutiny. That is perhaps the worst aspect of faith, the suppression of rational thought and the demand we believe without question.It sure can be effective.

    • “That is perhaps the worst aspect of faith, the suppression of rational thought and the demand we believe without question.”

      Indeed. We are taught what to think and told not to move outside the fence posts. We are given all manner of defense mechanisms to use should doubt or questions rear their heads against the faith. We are taught to admire these aspects of Christianity, to consider them beautiful and unique. In the case of Jesus, we ignore the far greater sacrifice of every soldier who ever shed his blood on the battlefield in defense of his countrymen, knowing he would not rise three days later. We are taught to think of God’s love while hushing over the passages that speak of his hate, and using the passages about his wrath to justify our own. What a tangled web. It takes a great deal to escape.

      • Theists say we are rebelling against god, and maybe they are part right. I recognize in this thead (and in myself) an indignation and a rebellion against being told what to think. Come to think of it, that goes for all the atheists I know, too. I guess that rebellion is an excellent defense mechanism!