A great question...

"Was Jesus' death a violation of the commandment against human sacrifice?"

 [updated Aug 1999, with the information about the Jewish background]

Somebody wrote in:

I am hoping you will be able to resolve a very important issue confronting the very foundation of Christianity.

God's way of testing Abraham by calling for the sacrifice of Isaac...and then the abrupt staying of the knife...was intended to demonstrate that God abhorred human sacrifice and would not accept it (Gen 22.12). When the great central Law of Judaism (the TORAH) was revealed at Sinai, it called for animal sacrifices. The slaying of an animal and the offering of its blood according to certain prescribed rites, symbolized God's mercy to the sinner, for this would have been his fate. Later in the Law, Moses gives warning to Israel not to worship God in the manner of the pagans (through human sacrifice) for it is an abomination unto the LORD in any way or form it is practiced (Deut 12.30-32).

Turning to the New Testament, Jesus states that he completely upholds the precepts of the Judaic Law until its complete spiritual enactment through-out the world. This great authorization of the central Law of Judaism renders it supreme (Matt 5.18). Nevertheless, here is where a trouble-some contradiction arises. According to Romans 5.6-11, Jesus' death was a vicarious atonement. But this is a human sacrifice which is expressly forbidden by the very same Law sanctioned by Jesus.

True, Jesus is unique in being both human and Divine. But by sanctioning the Law He did not allow His uniqueness to detract from His subjection to the Law which is understandable since the Law is the perfect Word of God.

In sum, if Jesus was upholding the Law then His death cannot be sacrificial. Or, if His death is sacrificial, He has rejected the Law which He claimed to uphold. In either case, Christianity's central doctrine of the sacrificial death of Jesus is proven to be scripturally untenable. Christianity is therefore in peril of crumbling away. The stakes are very high. If Christianity succumbs to an inner breakdown, the moral order in the world will soon follow....

This contradiction can only be satisfactorily resolved by reference to Scripture. Scripture is a single, self-consistent truth, but beginning to end. Each verse urges its own truth. When two verses appear to exhibit incompatible claims, a contradiction develops. We must then attempt to resolve this contradiction by reference to another verse(s) which will reconcile the two opposing viewpoints...

When reconciliation is not forthcoming, the contradiction remains and the verse(s) in question are not Divinely revealed facts, but have been spoken by the prophet out of his own authority...

The defensibility of Jesus' sacrificial death has been troubling me for a long while. I am unable to resolve it according to Scripture. I would be very grateful to you if you could clear it up for me...

Good question...let's dive in...

First of all, in approaching this matter, we must FIRST pay strict attention to the level of detail and level of precision in the prohibitions against human sacrifice. Let's look at the major verses:

NOTICE: The common pattern here is NOT 'human' sacrifice, but 'CHILD' sacrifice. [By the way, the archeological data on this practice generally supports the fact that it was largely INFANT sacrifice. See any of the standard Bible encyclopedia's on human sacrifice and/or Molech.]

Now, the next question to ask concerns whether we have any data as to why 'CHILD' is the issue and not simply 'HUMAN'...so let's look at the remaining 'human sacrifice' passages"

So, what emerges from the textual data is that CHILD SACRIFICE IS WRONG BECAUSE IT IS MURDER. (Cf. Ex 23.7: do not put an innocent or honest person to death)

It is not 'killing' that is the issue here--for Israel was commanded to enforce a detailed judicial death penalty--it is ONLY murder.

In fact, the capital-offense GUILTY are supposed to be executed/killed (Dt 19.11: But if a man hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him, assaults and kills him, and then flees to one of these cities, 12 the elders of his town shall send for him, bring him back from the city, and hand him over to the avenger of blood to die. 13 Show him no pity. You must purge from Israel the guilt of shedding innocent blood, so that it may go well with you.).

Now, technically, the contradiction does NOT exist, for two reasons: (1) Jesus was obviously not a child when the crucifixion occurred and (2) He was not 'innocent' AFTER the point at which He 'became sin for us' (2 Cor 5.21: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us) and 'He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree'--I Pet 2.24. It is only AFTER this point that God's wrath was poured out upon our Lord.

But there is also MORE data that is relevant to dealing with the bigger theological picture here.

Without trying to show a 'mastery of the obvious' here, let me restate the facts and ask the next level question.

  1. To kill an innocent child as a sacrifice was murder.
  2. To kill an innocent child (in normal circumstances) was murder.
  3. To kill an adult guilty of a capital offense was justice.
  4. To kill an innocent adult was murder.
But the next question is: was it okay for an innocent adult to sacrifice himself/herself (not in the sense of suicide, but in the sense of a substitution)? [Notice that this question is only oblique to the issue of Jesus--He became 'guilty' FOR us, so number 3 above was His situation--deliberately.]

For example, is it morally right for an adult to take a substitutionary role:

We normally do not consider these cases of self-sacrifice to be immoral--indeed, we typically praise these actions. In the above cases, we have varying degrees of substitution with various levels of certainty of the outcome.

And, if we consider Jesus' words on the matter in John 15.13:

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
and the ever humbling Mark 10.45:
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
[Needless to say, the Jesus who affirmed the Law saw no contradiction in voluntarily dying for His friends--as obvious from OTHER passages that portray His death as voluntary--NOT 'exacted from' Him: This self-giving is linked to the sacrificial ritual explicitly in Hebrews 7.27 ( Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.) and Hebrews 9:14 ( How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!).

So what do we have so far?

Now, one question still remains--was it against the Law for an unblemished Jesus to 'take on the sins of the world' as the Lamb of God?

Strictly speaking, this is where the deity of Jesus comes into importance. Only GOD has the sovereign ability to accept substitutes and/or transfer legal liability (In the OT, attempts to offer unauthorized things met with disastrous consequences--cf. Lev 10) . So, in Isaiah 53 we see the actions of YAHWEH in 'laying' the sins of Israel upon the Messianic Servant:

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (53.6)
For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. (53.6)
Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering (53.10)
For he bore the sin of many, (53.12)
Notice that this issue of a human (albeit special), sacrificing His life for other humans, at God's sovereign direction, is an OLD TESTAMENT issue FIRST--NOT a 'Christian' issue--we simply inherited it from them (smile)!

The net of this is that Jesus, as God, could fully cooperate with the Father and the Spirit in taking on the sins of the world--without violating the OT.

But time for a reality check--did the Jews of the period see a problem with a righteous person giving their life in this way?

Not at all...In fact, this "substitution motif" was applied to Moses (in Isaiah 53), to some rabbi's, and to the innocents:

"The atonement of suffering and death is not limited to the suffering person. The atoning effect extends to all the generation. This is especially the case
with such sufferers as cannot either by reason of their righteous life or by their youth possibly have merited the afflictions which have come upon them.
The death of the righteous atones just as well as certain sacrifices.' [Mechilta, 72b]... There are also applied to Moses the Scriptural words, "And he bore
the sins of many" (Isa- 53 12), because of his offering himself as an atonement for Israel's sin with the golden calf, being ready to sacrifice his very soul for
 Israel, when he said, "And if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book (that is, from the Book of the Living), which thou hast written" (Exod- 32 32).' [Sotah,
14a and Berachoth 32a] This readiness to sacrifice oneself for Israel is characteristic of all the great men of Israel, the patriarchs and the Prophets acting in
 the same way, whilst also some Rabbis would, on certain occasions, exclaim, "Behold, I am the atonement of Israel"" [Mechilta, 2a; Mishnah Negaim 2.1]
 (Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology:310)

We have two passages in the Jewish intertestamental literature that illustrate how two martyrs were understood this way:

So, the understanding developed above is in line with the Jewish thought patterns of the period.

In summary, we see that the biblical data says that the Crucifixion is morally 'okay'(!). That event is a complex of many events--judgment, self-sacrifice, ransom, priestly offering, substitution, guilt-transference, etc. The biblical authors (OT, Jesus, NT) didn't put it all together completely into a nice and neat 'system' (and neither can we), but they certainly didn't see any glaring contradictions between those various biblical themes.

Hope this helps...if this is confusing or raises OTHER questions, let me know...glenn miller (5/31/96)

The Christian ThinkTank...[http://www.christian-thinktank.com] (Reference Abbreviations)