From *The Skeptical Review*, 2000 / Jan-Feb:
by Farrell Till
The incineration of animals to appease the anger of the gods was an ancient barbaric belief that seemed to be almost universal. We know from reading the Bible that animals were sacrificed to Yahweh with the understanding that this was something that he not only wanted but had specifically commanded under pain of severe penalties if his various sacrificial commands were disregarded. The nations around Israel--Babylonia, Persia, Assyria, Egypt, Greece, Rome--also practiced religions that required animal sacrifices. Cultures far removed from this region, such as the Meso-American tribes, also offered animal sacrifices to their gods.
The origin of the practice is probably forever lost in antiquity. Perhaps the idea began when the first humans lived together in one place and was then taken abroad as the adventurous ones migrated to other parts of the world, or perhaps the belief that gods could be appeased by burning animals in tribute to them was an idea that developed independently in cultures that were completely isolated from one another. Regardless of its origin, the sacrifice of animals in homage to the gods was an idea that obviously had wide acceptance.
Probably from the idea that the gods could be appeased by animal sacrifices, some religions evolved to include human sacrifices. We can only surmise how that this practice developed, but it isn't hard to imagine that primitive people who superstitiously believed that the gods could be appeased by killing animals in tribute to them could have eventually come to believe that a higher order of sacrifices would be even more pleasing to their gods. Regardless of how or where the idea of human sacrifice originated, it did become a common practice in primitive religions.
Although some biblical writers and prophets condemned human sacrifices, the Bible was not at all consistent in its view of this religious practice. Psalm 106 condemned the Israelites who had "sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons" and had "poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan" (vs:36-37), and kings like Ahaz (2 Kings 16:3) and Manasseh (2 Kings 21:6) were denounced for having made their sons "pass through fire," an expression that denoted the sacrifice of children as burnt offerings. One of the reasons that the writer of 2 Kings gave for Yahweh's having allowed Assyria to take the northern kingdom of Israel into captivity was that the people had "made their sons and their daughters pass through fire" (17:17). Human sacrifices, then, were condemned by some biblical writers and prophets but were nevertheless practiced.
This is not to say that human sacrifice was uniformly condemned in the Bible, because there are some passages that seemed to imply acceptance of the practice. In Genesis 22, God commanded Abraham to take his son Isaac to a mountain in the land of Moriah and "offer him there as a burnt offering"(v:2). As the story was told, Abraham took Isaac to the mountain, bound him to an altar, and took a knife to kill his son in obedience to the command when a voice from heaven told Abraham to stop, because he had proven that he "feared God" by not withholding his only son (vs:9-12). Such a story as this could have been told and accepted as an example of great faith only in a culture in which human sacrifice was thought to be an appropriate homage to one's god, so even if Abraham was not an actual historical person, the existence of this legend in Israelite culture would indicate that the idea of human sacrifices was not at all repugnant at the time.
That it wasn't a repugnant concept is shown by an actual case of human sacrifice recorded in Judges 11. Jephthah had been called to judge Israel in a time of conflict with the Ammonites. Before going into battle, the "spirit of Yahweh" came upon Jephthah, who made a vow that if Yahweh "will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be Yahweh's to be offered up by me as a burnt offering" (vs:30-31). Jephthah inflicted a "massive defeat" (v:33) on the Ammonites, and upon his return home, he was met by his daughter, his only child, who came out of the house dancing with timbrels (v:34). Upon seeing her, Jephthah tore his clothes in despair and told his daughter about the vow. As the story was told, her reaction was that a vow was a vow and had to be kept, so after she was given two months to "bewail her virginity" (v:38), Jephthah "did with her according to the vow he had made" (v:39).
In the New Testament, both Abraham and Jephthah were listed among the great heroes of faith from the Old Testament era (Heb. 11:17, 32), and the willingness to offer up Isaac was given as one of the reasons for so designating Abraham. With passages like these in the Bible, it is rather hard to declare Yahweh entirely innocent of the barbarism of human sacrifices. That's especially true when the doctrine of the vicarious atonement is objectively evaluated. "Jesus died for you." Anyone who has ever tried to conduct a conversation with an evangelical-minded Christian has surely heard this or similar statements, and that is because they are simply parroting what was repeatedly said in the New Testament. "Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person," the apostle Paul said, "though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die, but God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:7-8). In his famous defense of the resurrection, Paul said that he had preached to the Corinthians "as of first importance" that which he himself had received [by revelation] "that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3).
This is a cardinal doctrine of the New Testament, and in attaching to it the importance that we find in writings that were allegedly "inspired" by the Holy Spirit, Christianity reduced its god to the level of an ancient volcano deity who demanded through his priests the sacrifice of a virgin to appease his wrath. Anyone who doubts this should read the book of Hebrews, whose central theme was that it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin (10:4), and so God sent his son to die for the sins of the world. "When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins," the writer further said, " he sat down at the right hand of God" (10:12). No doubt many Christians uncritically see beauty in the idea of a god who loved the world so much that he sent his son to be a sacrifice for sin, but those who so see it have yet to realize that they are finding beauty in an ancient barbaric ritual that enlightened people should have abandoned long ago.
John Shelby Spong, the maverick bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, is waging a campaign to reform Christianity from within. In his book Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Spong proposed "Twelve Theses" that Christianity must accept in order to prevent its demise. Number six was this: "The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbaric idea based on a primitive concept of God that must be dismissed." In a recent article in Human Quest, he offered the following defense of this thesis:
To me it is obvious that unless we expose the barbaric quality of this ancient interpretation of the meaning of Jesus' death and of the God who was said to have required it and remove this spiritual monstrosity from the Christian enterprise, then Christianity has no future. I do not believe that modern men and women will ever find appealing a God whose will is served by the human sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
If Christianity requires this view of the meaning of Jesus' death, I, for one would no longer choose this household of faith. But because of its entrenched nature, passive opposition will never be effective. Indeed, this idea must be aggressively dislodged or nothing new and more appealing will ever emerge. That is why the Christian Church today requires, I believe, a new and mighty reformation that must not stop until it has examined and reformulated the most basic core doctrines of the Christian faith ("Reforming Christology: He Did Not Die for My Sins!" November/December 1999, p. 7).
Why someone who has come this far in seeing the barbaric origins of its primary doctrines would choose to remain affiliated with Christianity is indeed a mystery, but Spong has apparently decided to stay in rather than get out. However, it is at least encouraging to see that some prominent Christian leaders are beginning to see how deeply the roots of Christianity are embedded in ancient superstitions that an enlightened people should have outgrown by now.
Maybe Spong and those like him are the long overdue light at the end of the tunnel.