“I Hate to Break it to You Here at Notre Dame”

“I’ve Started to Feel Distinctly Nauseous”

It’s so easy to become immune to the clear meaning of the New Testament account of a human sacrifice. Christian minds have become numb to the appalling dogma that they take with a shrug. They go along with Mark’s Jesus quote, (10:45): “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Certainly many religions and cultures, scattered the world over, have embraced human sacrifice at one time or another, and all of them—or so we would hope—have gotten over it, and just said No. How might that have happened? How did the revulsion set in? At some point, sensitive, thoughtful people said, “Okay, this is revolting.”

Playwright Peter Shaffer has given us a scene that may throw light on the process. In his play Equus, Dr. Martin Dysart treats the very troubled youth, Alan Strang, who blinded horses with a knife. But while he was treating Alan, the doctor’s own demons and self-doubts surfaced in a nightmare that he describes in detail—which is worth quoting in full:

"That night, I had this very explicit dream. In it I’m a chief priest in Homeric Greece. I’m wearing a wide gold mask, all noble and bearded, like the so-called mask of Agamemnon found at Mycenae. I’m standing by a thick round stone and holding a sharp knife. In fact, I’m officiating at some immensely important ritual sacrifice, on which depends the fate of the crops or of a military expedition.

The sacrifice is a herd of children; about five hundred boys and girls. I can see them stretching away in a long queue, right across the plain of Argos. I know it’s Argos because of the red soil.

"On either side of me stand two assistant priests, wearing masks as well; lumpy, pop-eyed masks, such as also were found as Mycenae. They are enormously strong, these other priests, and absolutely tireless. As each child steps forward, they grab it from behind and throw it over the stone. Then, with a surgical skill which amazes even me, I fit in the knife and slice elegantly down to the navel, just like a seamstress following a pattern. I part the flaps, severe the inner tubes, yank them out and throw them hot and steaming on the floor. The other two then study the pattern they make, as if they were reading hieroglyphics.

"It’s obvious to me that I’m tops as chief priest. It’s this unique talent for carving that has got me where I am. The only thing is, unknown to them, I’ve started to feel distinctly nauseous.And with each victim, it’s getting worse. My face is going green behind the mask. Of course, I redouble my efforts to look professional—cutting and snipping for all I’m worth; mainly because I know that if ever those two assistants so much as glimpse my distress—and the implied doubt that this repetitive and smelly work is doing any social good at all—I will be the next across the stone. And then, of course—the damn mask begins to slip. The priests both turn and look at it—it slips some more—they see the green sweat running down my face—their gold pop-eyes suddenly fill up with blood—they tear the knife out of my hand…and I wake up."1

As we all know, theologians revel in mystery, but here’s the biggest mystery of all: I remain stumped that most Christians have not yet become nauseous. Why isn’t the green sweat running down their faces?

The butchery at the heart of their faith is a disgrace.

They believe that God caved in on human sacrifice and selected a Galilean peasant for the experiment; did God say to himself, “Let’s see if I’ll feel good enough to forgive people if Jesus gets tortured to death”? The theologians of the New Testament saw nothing horrid about this, and irony of ironies, their successors even thought up the name Good Friday for the day he died. One voice of protest I’ve heard is that of Christian writer Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer: “Is Jesus the ‘Son’ of a bloodthirsty deity who can only be appeased through the violent sacrifice of God’s only offspring?”2

Most of the religions on the planet finally turned their backs on such savagery, but the New Testament preserves it, like a severed limb soaking in acrid chemicals. For centuries theologians have perfected their skills as spin-doctors to make human sacrifice look like something else, anything else. They pile on slick interpretations, metaphors, superficial superlatives—the full arsenal of theobabble. But who can’t see through it?

In a speech at the queen of Catholic universities, Sam Harris did not mince words: “I hate to break it to you here at Notre Dame, but Christianity is a cult of human sacrifice …it celebrates a single human sacrifice as though it were effective.”3 How can the justifications and rationalizations possibly be worth it? In the interest of sane religion, just let it go.

As well as slicing out gobs of Old Testament pages, Christians should also take the razor to the New Testament. By embracing human sacrifice, Christians have taken pagan dance partners, as was the case as well with resurrection. They’re in very bad company.

1 Peter Shaffer, Equus, Atheneum Press, 1974, pp. 8-9.
2 Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jesus Against Christianity: Reclaiming the Missing Jesus, p. 141.
3 Transcribed from YouTube.

David Madison was a pastor in the United Methodist Church for nine year and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in August.