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?