Christianity: Ten Knockout Punches, Number 8

Christianity is a cult of human sacrifice

How do you explain torture to children? Author Phil Zuckerman faced this challenge on a day that was supposed to be a pleasant family outing:

“Our older daughter had a school assignment to visit a California mission. Built by the Catholics in the 1700s and 1800s, the California missions are a vital part of California history. And so we were excited to take our daughters to check one out, about 20 miles from our home. “And the mission was lovely: beautiful landscaping, old buildings, indigenous flowers, a trickling fountain. And then we walked into a large hall—and that’s when my younger daughter lost it. The space was full of crucified Jesuses. Every wall, from floor to ceiling, was adorned with wooden and plaster sculptures of Jesus on the cross: bloody, cut, and crying in pain. Some were very life-like, others more impressionistic. But all exhibited a tortured man in agony. My daughter had no context to understand it; she had no idea what Christianity was all about and had never been exposed to this most famous killing in history. She just saw what it objectively was: a large torture chamber. And she burst into tears and ran out.

“I followed her outside, and once I had caught up with her in the courtyard, she wanted any explanation. But how does a secular parent explain such gore to a five year old?

“Um, well, you see…there are millions of people who think that we are all born evil and that there is an all-powerful God who wants to punish us forever in hell -- but then he had his only son tortured and killed so that we could be saved from eternal torture. Get it? The whole thing is so totally, horrible, absurdly sadistic and counter-intuitive and wicked. Not to mention baldly untrue.” (Excerpt from a Zuckerman article in Psychology Today)

Of course, millions of Catholic five-year olds have had plenty of exposure to the pious gore; they accept the grotesque sadism as perfectly normal: “This is how our god worked out salvation.” Zuckerman’s story offers a reality check from an outsider that this is sick religion.

And kudos for gutsiness to Sam Harris, who once told an esteemed Catholic audience—and this is Knockout Punch Number 8: “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.” And yet…and yet, if we asked Christians—especially Catholics—“Why do you belong to a cult of human sacrifice?” …we get blank stares, denials, and outrage that we could even say such a thing. But there it is: a human form nailed to a cross, and the conviction that a god had “given his son” (John 3:16) to be tortured. In the bargain, of course, there are thousands of books written by doctors of theology to make sense of the nonsense.

How in the world did all this happen?

The links to my articles on the previous seven Knockout Punches:

Number 1 Number 2 Number 3 Number 4 Number 5 Number 6 Number 7

It surely occurred to primitive humans that blood is life: they saw life leave a body when a person bled to death. Blood took on a sacred quality, which drove the idea that the perfect gift or tribute to the gods was blood, hence the widespread adoption of animal blood sacrifice in ancient ritual. This was a large part of Old Testament piety, e.g., Leviticus 1:5, “He shall slay the young bull before the LORD; and Aaron's sons the priests shall offer up the blood and sprinkle the blood around on the altar…” Jerusalem Temple was, in fact, a slaughterhouse.

This tradition was adopted and modified by the Jesus cult; we read in Hebrews 9:12-14, that Christ

“…entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!”

This sentiment is echoed by the apostle Paul in Romans 5:8-9:

“But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.”

Justified by blood. Given the superstitious ancient mindset, this is no surprise. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Since theologians have been tinkering with the faith for ages (for examples, knocking the rough edges off of Yahweh—and off of Jesus as well, who said some nasty things), why can’t they do a major revamp of the mechanism for salvation? Matthew 19:21 offers foundation for better theology, in the advice Jesus gave to a man who wanted to know how to gain eternal life: “…sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” And in Matthew 5, Jesus recommends keeping the laws—all of them: “…whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Shouldn’t it be possible for Christians to cherry-pick their way to better theology?

Christians are skilled at creating an ideal Jesus of their imagination (as Bart Ehrman put it), so why not go with that? What would be wrong with a simple martyr’s death for Jesus? If there is a glimmer of historical truth in the gospel accounts of his crucifixion by the Romans (we can’t really be sure), it would be a good enough story that Jesus, the holy man, died an unjust and undeserved death. He could be mourned and worshipped for that alone, as is the case with many Christian martyrs.

But, sad to say, that would eliminate the magical formula, i.e., justified by blood. And, of course, magic is one of the major appeals of religion. It seems that Paul’s hallucinations kept Christianity tied to superstition: the cup that Christians shared at their communal suppers symbolized blood. Paul was not at the Last Supper—but he assured his readers that he got his information from the dead Jesus himself in his visions (1 Corinthians 11:23-26):

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Here the cup appears to symbolize the blood of Jesus, and he recommends performing this ritual until the Lord comes—which Paul was confident would happen soon. Several decades later, the author of John’s gospel wasn’t satisfied with symbolism.

Is it really possible that Christians today have no problem with this ghoulish Jesus-script?

“Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.’” (John 6:53-58)

This is probably the most blatant statement of the gimmick; it would be hard to imagine a better example of magical thinking. I’ve never pursued study of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, that is, by the miracle of the Mass, the bread and wine become the true body and blood of Jesus. But I suspect its roots lie in this text in John. How can the faithful possibly eat Jesus if he resides in heaven? Happily, there’s a miracle that happens at church that comes to the rescue.

If there is any Bible text I would like Christians to read, and face head-on, John 6:53-58 would be it. Are you really okay with drinking holy blood? Even—as the Protestants do—symbolically? At the Methodist Church in rural Indiana that I attended as a teenager, Communion Sunday came around once a quarter. We all knelt at the altar to receive the little chunks of Wonder Bread and Welsh’s Grape Juice—solemnly pretending that these represented the body and blood of Jesus. No one was there to tap me on the shoulder and say, “That’s pretty gross, you know.”

Is it expecting too much that religions make an effort to wean people off of silliness and superstition? I once asked an Italian journalist if the Vatican hierarchy itself really believed the fantasies peddled by the church. He shook his head, “No, maybe about half of them do, but it’s a business.” But how, in good conscience, can the bureaucrats pursue this business? Surely they know they’re playing on gullibility and superstition. Indeed, how can they not feel some revulsion at the exploitation of credulity?

Which reminds me…

In 2014 a vial containing Pope John-Paul II’s blood went on tour in the U.S.

These Catholic bureaucrats: What. Were. They. Thinking?

“Beginning in Boston, the first American city where Pope John Paul II said Mass in 1979, the relic will also be on display to worshipers in New York and Philadelphia, before ending up in Baltimore. The golden relic is normally housed at the Saint John Paul II shrine in Washington DC. It has a glass vial containing the Pope’s blood at its centre and is surrounded by a cloud-like shape with 12 red stones, which represent Jesus’s 12 apostles.” (The Independent, 18 June 2014)

I would like to know how this sample of the pope’s blood was obtained. Was there a nurse savvy enough to know its value, and set it aside to be exploited later? Why would viewing a vial of blood have any appeal? Why would it draw an audience? I’ve always suspected that relics are a technique for warding off atheism. God is mysterious, unknowable, distant, graspable to some extent through the preaching of holy men, but a relic is something tangible, within reach, a fragment of holiness right before our very eyes. VoilĂ , evidence—if not quite proof—that holiness is real.

Is this another example of being justified by the blood? You get points for adoring/venerating/worshipping pope blood? But, oh yes, here is a religion in which folks drink the blood of their god. I suppose anything can happen in a cult of human sacrifice.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, 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 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.