Science Corner: The Ultimate Sacrifice

Photo of three crosses at sunset

Was this an optimal solution in a universal sense, or was it optimal in context? (Photo by geralt)

Good Friday and Easter are still on my mind. I find myself struggling with the idea that God’s best solution for the problem of sin required human sacrifice. Having grown up with concepts like substitutionary atonement, the necessity seemed self-evident. But I’ve since heard enough people explain why the death of Jesus turned them off to Christianity rather than drawing them nearer to God that I think I’m beginning to understand where they are coming from. It was in that mindset that I came across this study on the role of human sacrifice in social and cultural development.

The news item touches on this, but it’s worth reiterating that the techniques used in this study are fairly new, so their reliability is still being assessed. (Note: See Kevin Birth’s comment below for a critique of the methodology.) The authors compare languages to propose a lineage of cultures, and then place other cultural properties within that lineage to see how they might have developed over time. In this case, what they were studying was the practice of human sacrifice and social stratification — how rigidly class barriers are enforced. What they found is that cultures that sacrificed humans tended to subsequently develop stronger social stratification, assuming that their language-based lineage is correct. It’s an intriguing result, as is the overall notion of quantitatively studying religious and social evolution.

Most striking to me is that Jesus’ death hardly seems like an exercise in reinforcing social stratification. Jesus seemed to have little interest in the many social barriers he encountered. If this research is correct, it makes me think that God’s sacrifice subverted our human intentions for the practice. Which makes me wonder if it was us who made it necessary for God to employ a sacrifice. Of course, there’s the sense in which our sin made it necessary for there to be some kind of solution. But did God specify the form it took, or were we complicit in that decision as well?

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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  • Kevin Birth commented on April 6, 2016 Reply

    The general point is a good one. There is no connection between Jesus’ sacrifice and the reinforcement of social stratification.

    The blog by Emily Benson that inspired this discussion is a review of a deeply flawed study.

    Long ago anthropology rejected cultural/social evolution because the archaeological and ethnographic record do not provide evidence to support such theories. There are those who still hang on to such frameworks, but for the most part their studies are methodologically flawed. The example cited in Emily Benson’s blog is one such case. First, it is inappropriate to apply Bayesian phylogenetic ideas to culture change (indeed, I think it is inappropriate to apply them to genetic change). Second, the study actually found human sacrifice practiced at all levels of stratification. Indeed, the data are odd–they indicate that human sacrifice has no effect on how quickly a stratified society becomes egalitarian, but does have an effect on how quickly it becomes more stratified (whatever that means). This means that human sacrifice is not sufficient for stratification to emerge, but since there are stratified societies with no history of human sacrifice, it means that human sacrifice is not necessary for stratification to emerge either. To conclude that human sacrifice “co-evolved” with stratification is therefore not supported by the data the study itself presents. Instead, all that can be concluded is that human sacrifice is more likely to be found in stratified societies than egalitarian societies, and that sometimes people with power use that power in evil ways.

    The study’s appearance in the distinguished journal NATURE points to a problem in how social science is viewed. There is a prevailing assumption that the use of metrics makes something more scientific, and as a result, social sciences that rely primarily on observation and description rather than measurement and statistics are somehow less scientific that those approaches that use measurement and statistics. But it needs to be borne in mind that the origins of modern statistics lies in racist applications of eugenics that have since been proven to be patently false. Basically, the use of statistics can sometimes be a rhetorical ploy rather than something that is epistemologically and methodologically sound. The interpretative activities that go into forming the categories to which the statistical analysis is applied can be every bit as subjective as observation and description, and results that sometimes indicate a mere (sometimes weak) correlation can sometimes be recast as indicating cause–such is the case with the study on stratification and human sacrifice.

      Andy Walsh commented on April 6, 2016 Reply

      Thanks for the insightful analysis, Kevin. I saw this study covered in several places, and I figured the topic and the high profile of the paper made it relevant for discussion, even if that ultimately meant critique of the methods or push back on the conclusions. I will add a note in the body to encourage folks to read your comment.

      You mention that it is not appropriate to apply Bayesian phylogenetics to cultural change. I thought they applied phylogenetic methodology to linguistic data, which (naively) makes a little more sense to me. Did I misunderstand the methodology, or are you including language changes as cultural changes? (I’d also be curious why you think Bayesian phylogenetics are inappropriate for genetics, since that’s a little closer to home for me, but perhaps that a discussion for elsewhere.)

    Daniel Munyan commented on April 11, 2016 Reply

    Jesus’ sacrifice to reconcile man to God was his own doing, as attested by the disciples before the reanimation and healing of Lazarus. He could have at any time stopped it, as he said to Peter in Gethsemane. Jesus engineered his arrest, trials, and convictions, so that common folk, royalty, religious establishment, political establishment and the military would all be complicit in his death. Nobody could say it was “the others” who killed Jesus. Jesus and Paul both said the cross would be a stumbling block to belief. No surprise that it is still today. Jesus’ sacrifice was not merely human sacrifice. It was the sacrifice of God as well. That is why Jesus’ death exploded death. Remember that the sin of Adam, Eve, and everyone since is that they make themselves gods. That one sin separates from God. His holiness cannot tolerate another god, and He moved away from us in order to keep that holiness from killing us all without hope of redemption. The cross is not death, it is life. Through it Jesus went from mortal to immortal and opened the door to immortality for all who will enter through him.

      Andy Walsh commented on April 12, 2016 Reply

      Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Daniel. Certainly Jesus’ sacrifice was a matter of God’s initiative, and I’m sorry if I gave a different impression. And I’m not questioning its centrality to our salvation; to the contrary, because it is so critical I want to make sure I understand it as best as I can. What I’m curious about isn’t so much a matter of responsibility as constraint. Was it strictly God’s nature that required death, or was it in any way a matter of human cultural context? To put it another way, if God’s holiness prevents him from tolerating other gods, how does the sacrifice of God change that dynamic? Isn’t that a further affront to God’s holiness?

        Daniel Munyan commented on April 13, 2016 Reply


        You raise a very interesting question. I would posit the evidence of Scripture is that God’s very presence in our fallen universe/world starts it’s destruction by His holiness. The destructive energy around Mount Zion, in the Ark of the Covenant, and in the Pillar of Fire killed without hesitation…even animals. Clearly our universe is alergic to God’s holiness in His physical form. That said God’s absence from our universe continues its death spiral described in Newtonian physics. Humanity chose to make itself the god of this universe but cannot maintain or even support it, leading to eventual death of everything until the stars go out. IMHO this is why humans strive for immortality and embrace any theory that suggests the universe had no beginning and has no end.

        I believe human sacrifice by humans illustrates an evil act motivated by a perverted understanding of the requirement of God that He must create the bridge through His holiness into His kingdom with His being. Through the sacrifice of Jesus, God is permanently invested in human form. Jesus is now and forever man, locked into a human matrix for all eternity. Notice God the Father never speaks again after the cross. His last words are to the three chosen disciples to listen to Jesus. By investing Himself irrevocably into Humanity God sacrifices Himself knowing that by giving up His now mortal and immortal life he will destroy the power of His holiness to irradicate humanity even as it will eventually destroy and remake the universe.

        The greater horror to me is that God’s justice must be satisfied for all eternity, as it is His essential property in combination with His eternal and perfect love. For those who reject that God is God and they are not, thus means an eternity in utter darkness and despair, because death is no more because of the sacrifice of God.

          Andy Walsh commented on April 19, 2016 Reply

          Daniel – Thanks for sharing these thoughts. Certainly God’s holiness is potent, although it’s not entirely clear to me that it is always or intrinsically destructive. Adam and Eve apparently survived being present with God even after they sinned, and Moses had several encounters with God. And then there is the question of how one understands God’s omnipresence, which could imply we are all always in the presence of that holiness. And so I’m still puzzling over how God’s holiness might have changed with the death of Jesus. It seems that some element of mercy has always been at work to allow a fallen creation to coexist with a holy creator.

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