Overview:

A simple argument that tries to defend Christian dogma by correcting a clumsy phrasing—that Jesus was a child sacrifice—goes off the rails in a surprising number of ways.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

What do you do if you’re living in the 21st century, but you’re stuck worshipping a god from thirty centuries earlier with morals to match? Let’s critique how Alan Shlemon of the Stand to Reason ministry does in his recent piece, Christ’s Crucifixion Isn’t Child Sacrifice.

Shlemon begins by lamenting that Christianity is often seen as out of touch. He says,

Many professing Christians are uncomfortable with God killing his Son as the penalty for our crimes. They see this as child sacrifice. From their perspective, it’s impossible for such a doctrine to be consistent with God’s character when it’s so clear that God abhors the killing of innocent children.

He doesn’t, but we’ll get to that.

Shlemon moves on to the “disturbing new trend of ‘deconstructing’ faith.”

In my observation, it is the process of pulling apart aspects of the Christian faith that are undesirable and aligning one’s doctrines with culture or one’s own personal beliefs. By contrast, the biblical (and healthier) approach is to correct mistaken theology by conforming it to what Scripture teaches.

I find it hard to believe that you don’t, at least a little, shape your Christianity to adapt to your own deeply felt personal beliefs. For example, I doubt you take God’s rules for chattel slavery in Leviticus 25:44–6 with a cheerful, “Huh—who knew that slavery for life was A-OK with God? Oh well, you learn something new every day.” The Bible acts a bit like a mirror for most Christians, reflecting their own views.

To rein in the deconstruction and return to what he sees as orthodox Christianity, Shlemon wants to show how calling the crucifixion of Jesus a child sacrifice is inappropriate. He gives three reasons.

1. “Christ was not a child”

Granted—the crucifixion was a human sacrifice. This seems like a technicality, but sure, he’s correct that Jesus was an adult when crucified.

But we can’t glide past this point without acknowledging that God was fine with child sacrifices. He demanded them. Let’s turn to the Good Book.

You must give me the firstborn of your sons. Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day. (Exodus 22:29-30)

If you know your Bible, you may remember a caveat to this command. There is a caveat, but it’s not here. Later in that same book we find the same command,

The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock, whether from herd or flock. (Ex. 34:19)

But then a verse later, we read, “Redeem all your firstborn sons.” That is, sacrifice livestock like a lamb instead of a baby boy.

There are two things to note here. First, that other verse, Exodus 22:29, really does demand the sacrifice of all firstborn baby boys. There is no caveat. No boys are redeemed. An angel won’t swoop in to stop the sacrifice at the last moment.

Second, how can these two contradictory commands exist in a single book? What does God want—are firstborn sons sacrificed or redeemed?

The answer is the Documentary Hypothesis, which explains the many contradictions in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. The Pentateuch is an amalgam of four independently written sources named J, E, P, and D. These sources had different agendas, so it’s not surprising that they contradict.

Exodus 22:29 is from the E source, so named because God is called Elohim. Verses 34:19–20 are from the J source, where God is called Jehovah (that is, Yahweh).

This is a tangent, but Exodus 34 gives the second version of the Ten Commandments—you may remember that Moses smashed the first set after seeing the golden calf—which is a quite different from the popular version in Exodus 20 (Thou shalt not kill, or steal, or bear false witness, etc.).

It’s odd that the article didn’t explore this …

See also: God Loves the Smell of Burning Flesh: Human Sacrifice in the Bible

2. “Christ’s sacrifice was not involuntary”

Again, this is a valid point. Calling the death of Jesus a child sacrifice ignores that Jesus was willing to die, unlike a child sacrifice. But Shlemon makes an interesting observation.

Children did not consent to being sacrificed to [the Canaanite god] Molech. Their death was forced upon them.

True, but what about Yahweh’s demand for child sacrifice? God demanded Israelite firstborn, and death was forced on them. Was that any more justified?

Next, we get a quote from the New Testament to illustrate Jesus’s willingness to be sacrificed.

[Jesus said,] “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

But Jesus didn’t lay down his life for anyone. He popped back to life after being “dead” for a day and a half. His sacrifice was minimal.

See also: 10 Reasons the Crucifixion Story Makes No Sense

3. “God condemns child sacrifice”

Again, Shlemon is correct while missing the big picture. God both condemns child sacrifice and commands it.

Shlemon’s salvo is Leviticus 20:2:

Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molech is to be put to death.

I could respond with Exodus 13:2, which we’ve analyzed above:

Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether human or animal.

Our game of dueling Bible verses has only proven that the Bible is contradictory and therefore unreliable. Shlemon can make an argument by carefully picking some verses and ignoring others, but must the atheist point out that that’s no honest way to read the Bible?

The discipline of hermeneutics is supposed to show the correct interpretation of the Bible. In Shlemon’s hands it is subservient to rhetoric and has become a way to force a predetermined meaning onto the Bible.

But we can’t glide past this point without acknowledging that God was fine with child sacrifices. He demanded them.

A Swiss cheese argument

Shlemon’s argument that Jesus is not a child sacrifice carries on a superficial level, but the interesting argument is what Shlemon ignored or sidestepped. Does he think we won’t notice?

Here are the real takeaways.

  • God not only makes clear that child sacrifice is allowed, he demands it for himself. God is immoral.
  • But pick different verses, and God is against child sacrifice. That means that the Pentateuch is contradictory and unreliable. The Documentary Hypothesis explains how this happened.
  • Even Christians agree that God accepts human sacrifice, since the perfect human Jesus is supposed to be a substitute for the sins of humanity. If it even makes sense to have a grudge against people that are imperfect because he made them so, can’t God just forgive? Why does he look like just another Bronze Age god who demands sacrifices?
  • In our brief tour of Bible verses, we stumbled across the two very different versions of the Ten Commandments. I wonder why those Christians who insist on public display of the Commandments only like the set that Moses smashed, not the set that was put in the Ark of the Covenant.

What explains Shlemon’s odd argument that missed all the good stuff? Perhaps he’s not read any rebuttals to his argument. Maybe he’s put himself in a Christian cocoon to be insulated from contrary ideas.

Or maybe he’s aware of these embarrassing flaws within Christianity but ignores them, both because he has no good rebuttals and because his Christian audience isn’t interested in any.

Neither is a good look.

Continue to: The Bible on child sacrifice

God thinks of us as such scumbags
that he’ll send us to hell for all eternity,
but then also needs us to glorify him
at the same time?
— Matthew Distefano, All Set Free blog

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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...