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 theory. Anselm 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.