Easter Explained: What the Sacrificial Death of the Son Tells Us about the Father

Peter W. Sperlich

Even a minimal acquaintance with religious assertions and theological dicta makes one tiresomely familiar with claims affirming the truth and logic of a given faith. The faith in question may be specific (Catholic) or general (Christianity), but the assertion is always that the faith is true and logical. The truth of a faith cannot be tested directly; one simply believes it or not. The logic of the creed, however, is subject to scrutiny. Assuming the common and ordinary meaning of that term, it is certainly possible to show whether or not different elements of the creed cohere logically. If the faith does not survive the test of logic, it is not likely that it is true by the most common meaning of this term because a true statement cannot be self-contradictory.

Various aspects of the foundational dogma of Christianity (the Easter story) do not form a logically coherent construct. God is said to have sacrificed his son in order to save the world. The key question is what the sacrifice of the son reveals about the father. To set the stage for this investigation, a number of issues require prior attention: the veracity of Christian monotheism, the origins of evil, and the problem of divine cruelty.

Monotheism

Monotheism is a Hebrew invention—unless it was Egyptian, originating with the Pharaoh Akhenaten and his single god, Aten. We do know that the ancient Hebrews were not consistently monotheists but worshipped a variety of gods. And polytheism did not only exist prior to Moses’s reception of the Ten Commandments but continued long thereafter, much to the despair of such prophets as Elijah, Isaiah, Hosea, and Amos. Even the commandment that “you shall have no other gods before me” buttresses polytheism. It does not say that there are no other gods but only that, among the Hebrews—God’s people—these gods should not rank above Yahweh. Joshua assumed the existence of other gods when he spoke to the assembled tribes at Shechem (Joshua: 24:15). And Psalm 82 begins by declaring that “God takes his place in the court of heaven to pronounce judgment among the gods.”

Today Judaism, Christianity, and Islam proclaim a single god, the supreme ruler of the universe. This god is said to be the sole creator of the universe and all of its laws. There is no doubt about the monotheism of contemporary Judaism and Islam. Christianity presents a more complicated picture because of the dogma of the Trinity. It is part of the doctrine, at least since Nicea, that three is one, but to non-Christians and even some Christians, this appears to be no more than a glib pretense. The Qur’an is highly skeptical of the concept and asks repeatedly why God would need a son. The post-Babylonian Jews also could not imagine that God had a son. And the dispute among Christians about the nature of the Trinity has a long history (one remembers Tertullian, as well as the dispute between Athananius and Arius) and is by no means over.

Catholicism presents an even more vexing problem. It is difficult to deny that Mary has quasi-goddess status in the Catholic Church. She is the “Mother of God” and, like Jesus, is free from the stain of original sin. Mary is vastly more venerated than the father or the son, not to mention the Holy Ghost. Add to this the church’s innumerable saints (each with specialized powers and responsibilities), and the sacred assembly resembles nothing so much as the polytheistic array of Hinduism.

In the beginning of this discussion, however, it will be assumed that all Christian creeds are truly monotheistic. Only in the last section will doubts have to be considered.

The First Problem: Monotheism and Evil

The problem of the origin of evil is a burden shared by all monotheistic religions. Polytheism avoids the issue by having a divine division of labor. Some gods are responsible for the “good” things, and other gods are responsible for the “bad” things that happen. The monotheistic God, of course, is uniformly presented as omnibenevolent and omnipotent, as well as omniscient and omnipresent. However, when the only acknowledged force in the universe is characterized as that of a benevolent omnipotence, it becomes difficult to explain the existence of evil. The “solution” is commonly found in the invention of Satan. Yet, given monotheistic omnipotence, Satan must also be a creation of God (the highest of the angels) and under the control of God. He has power and dominion only as far as Yahweh permits.

If Satan were to be understood as a self-sufficient and autonomous force arising independently of God’s creation, he would need to be granted the status of a (another) god—which would return matters to polytheism. This is the chief dilemma for all monotheisms, and even after thousands of years of trying to resolve the predicament, monotheistic apologists have not yet found a solution. Not, to be sure, because they were not clever enough but because the dilemma cannot be resolved—or rather, because it can be resolved by denying God’s benevolence (about which more later), which is neither a feasible nor a welcome denial.

The problem of evil has been an eternal affliction of monotheism. It has been endlessly debated and argued. There is little new that can be added to this discourse; it can only be noted. Christianity, however, has another problem that, similar to the problem of evil, cannot be resolved—at least not (as with evil) without dissolving the very monotheistic foundations of the faith. This problem is grounded in the Easter narrative: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that everyone who has faith in him may not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The phrase “only begotten” serves to indicate the magnitude of God’s love: he sacrificed not only a beloved son but the only one. At the human level, it can be seen that a father who gives his only son makes a greater sacrifice than a father who has several other sons—except that the analogy does not fit. A god who managed to get himself one son surely can get himself any number of other ones.

God, it should be noticed, did not seek to save “the world” by sacrificing his son but only that part of the world that believed in the son—a mere fragment of the world, then as now. Associated with the problem of the sacrificial death is the problem of divine cruelty. Cruelty will be considered first.

The Second Problem: Easter and Cruelty

Easter, the sacrificial death of the son of God, is a problem specific to Christianity. The key question is whether God was somehow compelled to sacrifice his son or whether he did so freely, by his own volition. It may seem strange to imagine that God would want to kill his son without necessity as an act of willfulness. But given Yahweh’s record of vengeful punishment and excessive cruelty, often beyond any discernible necessity and justification, such a killing would not seem to be outside his repertoire. (Surely divinely ordained killing of a son by the father is not that unusual; just ask Abraham and Isaac [Genesis 22]).

Is God Above Human Judgment?

It is possible to take the position (and many do) that what God does is justified by definition. This rules out any possible criticism of divine actions by mere human beings. But if human beings are entitled to comment on divine conduct at all (and nearly all believe this to be legitimate), then such commentary cannot be limited to praising kindhearted and beneficial deeds but must also include commentary on cruel and hurtful acts.

The Old Testament provides much evidence in this respect. There is the destruction of innocents in toto, such as the total destruction of the various tribes inhabiting the “promised land,” including the people of Sihon and the Amorites. Men, women, and children were slaughtered without exception—sometimes even the cattle were killed (Deuteronomy 3:33–36; Joshua 11:7–9). There is the torture of innocents by association because they were part of a group that contained (at least one) guilty person. Surely, not all of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were equally guilty. A large number of them must have been entirely blameless (at least the women and children) of whatever transgression it was of which the men of Sodom were guilty (Genesis 19). The obviously innocent people of Egypt had to endure the cruel torments of the ten plagues because of the stubbornness of the pharaoh, who would not let the Hebrews go—but it was God who first had made him stubborn (Exodus 10:20). And then there is the torment inflicted on specific, innocent individuals: consider the fate of the truly blameless Canaan, who was cursed and condemned to be a slave (with God’s approval) because his father, Ham, had seen his grandfather, Noah, naked (Genesis 9:20–27). While the punishment does not seem to fit the “crime,” it is, most astonishingly, not even applied to the actual offender. Finally, if there ever was an innocent man made to suffer the most grievous torments simply because it pleased God (on suggestion of Satan), it was Job (Book of Job).

The actuality of willful divine cruelty, however much it may disturb us, cannot be dismissed. In consequence, the doctrine of divine benevolence is very much thrown into doubt. But rejecting the doctrine of divine benevolence is not the only possible solution to the predicament of Easter cruelty. The other alternative is to dismiss supremacist monotheism.

The Third Problem: Easter and Supremacy

The Scriptures provide evidence for God’s unhappiness at the death of the “beloved Son” (Matthew 17:5; Mark 1:11). It can well be said that God grieved. At the crucifixion, God gave evidence of his distress in a number of ways. Most famously, a three-hour darkness fell over the land (Matthew 27:45), the curtain of the temple was torn, the earth shook, rocks split, and graves opened (Matthew 27:50–51). The Roman soldiers (and the Christians to come) took these signs to mean that they had indeed crucified the son of God and that God was unhappy about it (Matthew 27:54).

So we are confronted with a God who begot a son whom he knew would be killed and that he would be grieved. Then why did he allow the killing to take place? The first answer is because he wanted to save the world. But this is not sufficient. The sole and omnipotent ruler of the universe could have found other means for mankind’s salvation—for example, simply saying “I forgive your sins.” What needed to be forgiven, apparently, were not individual sins but (at least, following the teachings of Saint Augustine) the original sin inherited from Adam by all his descendants—something all the easier, it would seem, to forgive. That he did not make use of such much more benign alternatives suggest the presence and intervention of an external entity.

At this point we must ask the question: What power compelled God to save the world by sacrificing his son? To ask this is to ask about authorities above and beyond Yahweh. The answer to this question will tell us much about the nature of Yahweh.

What, then, does the sacrifice of the son reveal about the status of the father? In other words, if the sacrificial death of Christ was not simply a volitional act on the part of God but the necessary and required payment for the salvation of mankind to be made by a grieving father, then the question becomes: who decided that men could be saved only by the sacrifice of God’s son? A truly omnipotent God who wanted to forgive sins and spare men eternal damnation surely had alternative means by which to accomplish this. If Yahweh himself made the rule regarding what had to be done to save mankind, any rule could have been adopted, including, as noted, a simple declaration of forgiveness.

Theology and Contradiction

Religious devotees are famously able to hold simultaneously as true the most obviously contradictory positions. If the contradiction is at all acknowledged, it is reinterpreted as a “test” from God to identify his true disciples. Of course, there also is the Tertullian “solution”: credo quia absurdum (however, to be fair to Tertullian, possibly a misquotation). If the notion of a test proves to be too outrageous, there is the ultimate pretense that mere human beings simply cannot understand God. This may well be, but it raises the question of the usefulness and legitimacy of theology.

The origins of the sacrificial ordinance must be found outside of and apart from Yahweh. There had to be a yet greater power that could compel this price. This line of thought, however, has two infelicitous consequences for Christian monotheism and for the standing of Yahweh. First, it would follow that there is another force (another God) in the universe. No more monotheism. Second, it would follow that Yahweh is not the most powerful being in the universe. There is someone/something else that can force Yahweh to do things that are not of his own will. No more omnipotence.

Conclusion

The reader will have noticed that this essay has not sought to challenge any particular religious doctrines. It has simply extrapolated from the scriptural record and noted the resulting dissonances. The extrapolations show that the conventional Easter story of the loving God and of the sacrificial death of his son is incompatible with other tenets of the Christian faith, namely, Yahwist monotheism and omnipotence. Depending on which theologians are willing to give up—monotheism or goodness—Yahweh’s benevolence can also be thrown into doubt. Christian apologists will, of course, find excuses. But these Easter apologies will be as unsuccessful as the attempts to reconcile a benevolent God and the existence of evil.

The Easter story does not logically cohere with various other tenets of the Christian faith—which calls into doubt its truth and the validity of that faith.

Religion, it must be admitted, does not belong to the domain of rational thought but to the realm of myth, fiction, fantasy, and wishful thinking. Religious doctrines, as such, are not facts and cannot be verified or disproven as such. They can, however, be very much doubted when they do not form a logically coherent whole. Religious discourse is by its nature mystical and metaphysical. Clerics are forever talking about the truth and the logic of their faiths. They cannot be prevented from doing this, but at least their claims should be met with the laughter they deserve. Religion may have a function and a place in society, but it is not to foster truth and logic.

Peter W. Sperlich

Peter W. Sperlich is emeritus professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley.


Even a minimal acquaintance with religious assertions and theological dicta makes one tiresomely familiar with claims affirming the truth and logic of a given faith. The faith in question may be specific (Catholic) or general (Christianity), but the assertion is always that the faith is true and logical. The truth of a faith cannot be …

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