God’s pound of flesh
Central to the Christian faith is the belief in God’s absolute love for mankind with the surprising corollary that that love is expressed in Christ’s sacrifice of himself so that man should be saved from eternal damnation.
That the myth has any factual content has been so exhaustively dismissed by biblical scholars, scientists and philosophers that there really isn’t any point wasting time discussing it. So can I invite you to dally with this article only if you really have nothing else to do?
Let us assume that the events described in Genesis I and III really did occur, though not necessarily in a garden in the Middle East in 4004 BCE.
The facts are as follows:
- God created man with free will to sin or not;
- God warned man that if he sinned he would be put to death;
- God had already booby trapped man’s environment with a temptation to sin in the form of the tree of knowledge;
- Man fell into the trap and did sin;
- God seemed reluctant to execute the sentence but felt justice demanded that a punishment be inflicted;
- The son volunteered to undergo the punishment;
- God accepted this since the sacrifice of the innocent instead of the guilty did not, apparently, violate justice.
The subsequent outcome – that the son’s punishment was a token (three days’ damnation only); that his sacrifice had strings attached (you had to believe in him to be saved); that there has not so far been the promised pay off (man is still waiting for the second coming so he can stop dying) – casts doubts on the sincerity of both God and his son, but that is irrelevant to the argument about to be presented here.
From an early date Christian scholars scratched their heads and wondered:
How and why could the sacrifice of the innocent son redeem/ ransom/ deliver sinful man from the damnation due to him?
The explanation was not obvious.
Origen of Alexandria, writing in the 3rd century, suggested that man, by sinning, had placed himself in the power of Satan and that God had had to pay Satan a price to buy him back, that price being the death and descent into Hell of the son; a straight swop; eternal damnation of the son for that of mankind. A sort of quid pro quo. This may be logically credible, except for the fact the God reneged on the deal and sprung the son on the third day.
Centuries later Peter Abelard and Socinius proposed that the moral influence of the life of Christ was the redemptive force. This surprisingly modern interpretation is conclusively refuted by New Testament references to the death of the son, not his moral example as the cause of the redemption.
Grotius, the legal theorist, argued that a crime having been committed, a punishment had to follow so that justice could be seen to be done. A private person could forgive unconditionally, but a public figure, in his official capacity could not.
Thus God, as master of the Universe, was constrained by his office to insist on a penalty. The double fallacy here is that justice cannot be seen to be done if the innocent pays the penalty while the guilty goes free, and, more fundamentally, that God, being omnipotent, cannot be constrained as a human president or even absolute monarch can.
Others – and they include the formidable line up of Anselm, Aquinas and Calvin – have claimed that the sacrifice of the son was somehow necessary to compensate God for a loss he had suffered or to propitiate him following an insult which had enraged him.
It follows that the God who so loved the world had insisted on an eye for an eye and pressured his own beloved son into making a sacrifice, which, without such an insistence, would have been quite unnecessary, since God could have freely pardoned all mankind without condition.
Milton added the logical conclusion that man’s failure to refrain from sin had been foreseen by an omniscient deity. Why that same omniscience should have deliberately imposed a condition which he knew would not be kept, thus incurring a sentence which he did not wish to execute, is something the poet did not explain.
We are then left with the prospect that a vain and vindictive deity insisted on its pound of flesh in circumstances in which Shylock might have hesitated. But this can’t be true because we know that God is a god of infinite love.
So we must agree with Origen that God had no alternative but to do a deal with Satan, swapping the eternal damnation of the son for that of man; and that he then cheated on the deal, sprung the prisoner and swindled the great adversary out of his legitimate prize.
This conclusion gave me great comfort and I was about to search the Internet for a like-minded denomination which might receive me into its fellowship, when I hit a snag: surely God cannot be a swindler?
Then the Holy Spirit descended and blessed me with understanding;
Two days’ damnation of the son = eternal damnation of an infinite number of men.
The son is defined as infinite. Therefore simplifying the equation we get:
Infinity = infinity.
So Origen was right, but the Devil got a fair deal after all. Hallelujah!
• Jack Hastie is a retired lecturer in history, and a lifelong atheist and Scottish Nationalist. He has contributed articles to the Freethinker over many years and has published two poetry collections. He is a member of the Humanist Society of Scotland. In 2013 his book Fraser’s Voices, which bridges the gap between Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book and Richard Adams’ Watership Down, was published.