The concept of sacrifice is central to Christianity, but it is also found in many – if not most – traditional cultures around the globe. For many years it often occurred to me that if sacrifice is so intrinsic to human culture and mythology, then it must have roots in lower levels of organization: in biology, in chemistry, and even in physics. I don’t have any proof of this (though I do believe it), but in a journal entry from February 12, 2013, I attempt to sketch out a basic moral law on analogy with a basic law of physics. What follows is an unsophisticated analysis of the doctrine that Jesus had to die as a sacrifice to take away the sins of the world. To my mind, it’s not enough to just say so. It needs to make sense in a way that can accord with philosophy, science, and experience. If it’s true, then it should be true from any angle.
There are basic laws by which the physical universe operates.
Assuming that Reality is one (as I do) – that the dualities and dichotomies we recognize between spirit and matter or between supernatural and natural arise from our limited perspective rather than from a fundamental rift in what is ‘real’ – then the world of intangibles must also be governed by fundamental laws.
One such law seems to be this: when an evil deed is done, bad things will eventually return to the evil-doer, whether in the form of revenge, retribution, or punishment, or just as a natural consequence of a law of cause and effect [karma]. This law, as a basic spiritual law, may even be more precise, as in: for every evil done, an equal (or greater?) evil will return. This is the old law of ‘an eye for an eye’ or “you killed one of our warriors, so we’re going to kill five of yours.”
“For every evil done, an equal or greater evil will return.”
This law operating at the level of morality is as basic to our human existence as that of gravity at the level of physics. Gravity will have its effect, whether anyone likes it or not. So will this law.
Enter the idea of ‘sacrifice’. Through the ages of our species’ existence, people have sought ways to mitigate this moral law. “If you do a bad thing, a bad thing will happen to you.” How can one circumvent this law? A ‘sacrifice’ or a ‘scapegoat’ is something that can absorb the impact of the moral law in place of the evil-doer.
If evil is a force of death, then an act of evil – as an act of death, will elicit an equal or greater response according to the moral law. Evil begets evil. Death begets death. Thus, a basic law of our universe is that a death-dealing act requires death in return. Someone or something must die.
If this is true, then sacrifices to mitigate the moral law may be more than merely symbolic (and psychologically cathartic, though they may be that, too). Maybe when a Karimojong warrior murders a Turkana warrior, the bull that he sacrifices absorbs the consequence in actual fact, the backlash of the murder, according to the moral law. In the murder, death was dealt out, and therefore death must return. Sensing this, that he deserves death in return (has it coming to him), the warrior deflects his impending death onto the bull, which, in actual fact, dies. The sacrifice is made. The ‘spirits’ (or ‘God’) are appeased. Or so the warrior believes.
The problem with our sacrifices – whether bulls, grain, money, time, energy – is that they can never be enough. The Hebrews spilled the blood of countless beasts, but it was never enough, never final. The Karimojong warrior’s bull sacrifice might mitigate the consequences of the moral law for him temporarily, but his acts of evil are not fully atoned for and could never be. None of us, no one, has ever been able to escape the basic moral law. We should be killing animals all day long. The basic moral law is as strict as the law of gravity, and as a result of all our evil acts, requires that we all die. Just as a tree must fall due to gravity, humans must fall due to sin.
The basic moral law says evil begets evil. An act of evil (action) brings about another evil in response (reaction). This is an inescapable law operating in our universe at the spiritual or moral level. Because our evil acts outpace our ability to appease the law through sacrifice, the sum total of our evil acts necessarily leads to our death.
Jesus of Nazareth, according to the testimony of Christians since the time he was known to be alive, was the one human in all history who did no evil. Since he did no evil, no evil was due him. His judgment was not death because he did not dole out death. His perfect morality short-circuited the basic moral law. He defied the basic moral law, and basic laws don’t like to be defied. Sure, you can defy the law of gravity for a time, but soon you come crashing back to earth. Sure, you can defy the law of entropy for a time, but eventually your structure falls apart.
The degree to which a basic law is defied, to that degree it will have its vengeance.
The higher you jump, the harder your landing. The higher you fly, the greater your crash. The more you build, the more spectacular the destruction, and so on. Simply put, you don’t mess around with the basic laws of physics.
But Jesus messed with the basic moral law. When evil was done to him, he short-circuited the basic moral law by not responding with evil in return. And when he had the opportunity to commit an original evil act, he did not take it. This also defies the moral law.
Jesus’s defiance of the basic moral law confounded it. If we personify this, Jesus’s defiance of Satan (the Adversary) enraged Satan. Jesus’s perfect moral life enraged the basic moral law. And like with the laws of physics, the degree to which the basic moral law is violated, to that degree will it have its vengeance!
Jesus’s violation of the basic moral law was total. The law, so utterly confounded, brought its full force of retribution down on the violator. Not just death, but death on a cross. Not just death, but betrayal, torture, humiliation, hopelessness, abandonment, darkness, and hell.
As humans we have a big problem: we live in a world operating according to the basic moral law, but by our sacrifices alone, we cannot mitigate the law enough to erase its effects. And so we die. We must die. Some may make life more bearable by doing less evil, but the sum total of evil acts out-strips our self-atonement, and we die.
In Jesus, God entered the world to overcome the basic moral law (of lash and backlash). He did this by violating the law and then absorbing the full impact of its retribution into his body. And so his body died, cruelly and justly (justly in the sense that the basic moral laws of the universe are not to be violated).
But God cannot die. God is Life itself. And so once the basic moral law re-instituted itself through Jesus’s death, once death was dealt and the law regained its equilibrium, God’s Spirit resumed its only permanent state: aliveness. When Jesus was crucified and breathed his last breath, Satan the Adversary was appeased. The cosmic tension was released. The law’s hegemony was re-established.
But the joke is on the law, on Satan himself. The great violator of the law – Jesus – rose from the dead and began a movement of violators of the basic moral law. So even though the law was satisfied concerning Jesus’s particular violation on account of his death, the basic moral law will only ever be completely defused when all moral beings left alive are empowered to fully violate it as Jesus did. If that were ever to happen, it would entail a new kind of universe, one where not all original basic laws remain operative.
What Jesus did in his life, and ultimately in his death, was to absorb the lawful backlash of the basic moral law being violated, into his body. He gave himself up as a sacrifice, a scapegoat. He was the sin-eater par excellence. Because he himself deserved no evil done to him – by virtue of his moral perfection – his life and his body could be the only sacrifice that could appease the law once and for all. All other sacrifices are only partial because all other things, whether intentionally or unintentionally, obey the basic moral law (in an evolutionary sense, depriving other living beings their life in order to sustain one’s own life).
In sum, the basic moral law requires that all living beings die.
Doing good things may make the world a nicer place to live and will lessen the karmic consequences of the bad things we do, but all our deeds and sacrifices cannot out-pace the sum total of our evil – of our conformity to the basic moral law.
So we die.
Somehow (I haven’t worked it out in terms of the analogy with physics), when a person believes in Jesus, believes him to be God’s son, sent into the world to live a sinless life, die as a result, and rise from the dead, that person receives power and motivation to begin defying the basic moral law as Jesus did, and in so doing, begins to live according to a new physics of the spirit, what is called in the New Testament, ‘the kingdom of heaven’.
Jesus is recorded as saying that if he suffered for doing good, then his followers should expect the same. This is ‘persecution’. When a person violates the basic moral law by not returning evil for evil, this elicits a violent reaction against the violator. It must be that way, because basic moral laws are normally not to be disobeyed. But once the backlash has occurred, the tension is released and equilibrium is re-attained. The law rests, satisfied. The violator willingly gives his or her body as a sacrifice to absorb the backlash for the sake of the world and its inhabitants which he or she dearly loves.
When an opportunity to do an evil deed arises, and a person deliberately passes it up, the basic moral law is violated and brings a backlash. Likewise, when an evil deed is done to a person, and they do good in return instead of evil, this brings a backlash. In both cases, the violator absorbs the backlash into their body. Jesus did this on a cosmic scale, and Christians can only do this in his power. If it is done only with the appearance of self-sacrifice, if self-gain is the true motive, it does not violate the law because self-interest at the expense of others is evil and death-dealing. Thus, self-serving good deeds elicit no backlash, for they do not violate the basic moral law.
So, Christians are a race of people who violate one of the basic law of the universe – the basic moral law of ethical action-and-reaction. They do this because, even though this law is perfectly natural and intrinsic to human existence (thus far anyway), it perpetuates fear, suffering, and death. Love, that thing that drove God to sacrifice himself through his son on behalf of the world, longs for its beloved to be relieved of fear, suffering, and death. Out of love for this world and all it contains, Christians offer their lives and their bodies as sacrifices to atone for the evil being done every day. The more they love, the more they seek to violate the basic moral law. And the more they violate the basic moral law, the more violent becomes its backlash against them. This backlash is absorbed into the Body of Christ, which Christians call the ‘church’: individual Christians and their corporate whole.
As the decades, centuries, and millennia go by, the more people become Christians and the more they obey God in disobeying the basic moral law, the more persecution they will experience. In the ‘end times’, the persecution will reach such a crescendo that millions of Christians will be put to death. So much evil will be brought forth in a paroxysm of rage and showered on the heads of Christians that the law will be utterly spent in all the world. This will entail Jesus’s ‘second coming’ and the inauguration of a ‘new earth’.