Does Christianity call for human sacrifice?
When you put the question like that, the instinctive response of any given Christian would tend toward a resounding “no.” After all, human sacrifice is a barbaric act which no rational person could condone. We believers like to regard ourselves as rational.
Yet, a cursory examination of popular Christian doctrine suggests that human sacrifice – to one degree or another – stands as a central tenet of the faith. In his book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It, author Craig Biddle cites “religionists” – including many prominent Christian theologians – to demonstrate that religion calls upon man to sacrifice his own interests to “an alleged God.”
As a Christian, I find Biddle’s observations compelling. Having considered them within the broader context of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy for several years, I have come to question the manner in which Christian teachers present the topic of sacrifice. Increasingly, I have come under the conviction that Christendom has interpreted sacrifice incorrectly. In my view, it is because Christendom has misinterpreted sacrifice that critics like Biddle are able to present Christianity as force for evil rather than good.
With this introductory essay, I invite you to join me in an ongoing exploration of Christian doctrine and the challenges brought against it. My objective, as we proceed week after week, will be to correct what I have come to regard as a doctrinal error causing tremendous confusion within the church and posing a stumbling block for seekers and believers alike. To be clear, my claim is not that God’s Word is wrong, but that our reading of it has been. I hope to demonstrate that my altered view of sacrifice is the view actually taught within scripture.
Let’s begin with the problem, as Biddle lays it out. In the first chapter of Loving Life, which Biddle titles “Religion vs. Subjectivism: Why Neither Will Do,” we are presented with a false dichotomy between a morality dictated by divine whim or one divined by human whim. Biddle writes:
Whatever their disagreements, both sides of this argument accept the idea that your basic moral choice is to be guided either by faith or by feelings. In other words, both sides agree that your choice is: religion or subjectivism.
Aiming to demonstrate why either choice leads to human suffering, Biddle begins with a critique of religion:
Religion’s basic moral tenet is: Don’t place your self, your personal values, your own interests, your will, above those of God’s. Rather, you should live to glorify Him, to obey His commands, to fulfill His higher purpose. To do otherwise – to act on behalf of your own selfish concerns as if your life were an end in itself – is to “sin.” As the religious scholar John Stott declares: “God’s order is that we put him first, others next, and self last. Sin is the reversal of the order.”
According to religion, being moral consists not in pursuing your own interests, but in self-sacrificially serving God. Theologian and rabbi Abraham Heschel expresses this tenet as follows: “The essence and greatness of man do not lie in his ability to please his ego, to satisfy his needs, but rather in his ability to stand above his ego, to ignore his own needs, to sacrifice his own interests for the sake of the holy.”
It should be said at this point that, as a Christian, I harbor no interest or burden to defend religion as such. It is my specific Christian worldview, and not a general notion of any god or faith, which I aim to affirm.
Nevertheless, Heschel’s comment could just as easily have come from a Christian theologian as from a Jewish rabbi. Christianity and Judaism share an Abrahamic root. Biddle presents the story of how Abraham acted in obedience to God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac as a practical example of Heschel’s expressed moral claim.
Was Abraham’s choice moral? Should he have done it? Would you do it? What do religionists say about this? According to Saint Augustine: “The obedience of Abraham is rightly regarded as magnificent precisely because the killing of his son was a command so difficult to obey…”
As shocking as Augustine’s position may be, it is the only stance a dedicated religionist can take on the issue, because the only alternative is to challenge the alleged authority of God, and that is the cardinal religious no-no…
Thus, if God wills that a man should kill his son, then, regardless of what the man thinks, he should do it.
In that context, I ask once more: does Christianity call for human sacrifice? Are believers called to surrender their interests and judgment to the whim of God? If God called upon you to kill your son or wipe out a village or slaughter adulterers, would you do it? Why or why not?
These are not questions which believers can ignore. They cannot be sufficiently addressed by deferring to inarticulate notions of evolving doctrine or civilized interpretation. Christians believe that the same God who commanded the Israelites to stone adulterers in the desert later told an adulteress, “Neither then do I condemn you.” How do we reconcile that?
As we continue in this series, the aim will be to approach such questions informed by objective morality, which is to say those moral principles which can be rationally derived from the facts we perceive in reality. The task is not to reconcile Objectivism with Christianity – an impossible task. Rather, we will note how the truths which Rand and her disciples have discerned can serve to focus the Christian worldview and help believers understand the Gospel better.
Until next time, ponder this: did God create us to die, or did God create us to live?