Skip to main content

Jesus' sacrifice

We are regularly told that Jesus made the noblest of all sacrifices – to be cruelly flogged, beaten and die horribly on the cross so that we might be saved.

That is certainly a great and noble sacrifice. But it occurred to me recently that nobler and even more admirable sacrifices have probably been made.

By atheists.

Consider these two individuals:

1. Bert is convinced he can save all mankind from eternal damnation if he is prepared to die horribly after which he will then be resurrected. He makes the sacrifice.
2. Tim is convinced he can save the lives of several individuals (perhaps his own family) if he is prepared to die rather horribly, period. Tim being an atheist, supposes death is final. He makes the sacrifice.

Both acts are noble. But surely the second is rather more admirable. A far greater sacrifice (horrible and final death, rather than horrible, but merely temporary, death) is willingly made in order to save far fewer individuals (a handful of individuals rather than all of humanity).

Jesus’ sacrifice, assuming he knew what he was doing, is on par with 1. I am willing to bet that several atheists have made sacrifices on par with 2. If so, their sacrifice is more admirable than that made by Jesus.

Can we now identify some actual cases like 2?

[P.S. That some atheists have made sacrifices more admirable than Jesus' is the sort of suggestion that even non-religious minds tend unconsciously to skirt around. It's just too shockingly heretical even for them. Yet, now we've dragged the thought into the light of day, it does, indeed, seem pretty obvious, doesn't it?

In fact, if I knew that I could save all humanity by suffering a horrible, but only temporary, death, perhaps even a corrupt old sinner like me would make the sacrifice. I suspect most of us would, in fact.

That's kind of an uplifting thought, isn't it? Most of us would do what Jesus did.].


Anonymous said…
This is similar to the contrast between an atheist who does X because it is right/good and a believer who does X because God told them too/they want to go to heaven and avoid hell
jeremy said…
I agree completely.

What's more, I think you can extend the point. Even for a Christian, sacrificing his life for his family with the promise only of an afterlife (as opposed to a bodily resurrection) is a greater sacrifice than Jesus is said to have made, since Jesus didn't even have to permanently give up bodily life. And there are countless examples of this sort of sacrifice, aren't there...
Anonymous said…
A few hours suffering followed by an eternity in paradise as Master of the Universe? I'd do it for Scotland to win the World Cup!

Actually, I'd do it for nothing. Where do I sign?
Jezebeau said…
"This is similar to the contrast between an atheist who does X because it is right/good and a believer who does X because God told them too/they want to go to heaven and avoid hell"

Nay. While that be analogous to the question of which is more moral, the issue here is who is making the greater sacrifice. The atheist is convinced this act will end their life, and their consciousness ceases to exist. The believer trusts that they will go on in a different form, and believes that this sacrifice will secure the likelihood of attaining the afterlife they desire. All things equal, the atheist makes the greater sacrifice.
I think you're objecting to a popular presentation - which is fair enough. For my part I'm not convinced Jesus knew all of what was going to happen (despite the presentation in John's gospel). I think he knew it was the right way forward, but there's a bit of evidence to say he was expecting a miraculous intervention to save him - hence, when it didn't happen 'My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me'.

But I agree with the main point of the post. The same logic applies when you hear the argument about Jesus' suffering (ie nobody suffered quite so much).
Unknown said…
I am not expert on theology but isn't the myth that Jesus rose bodily into heaven so he is basically an eternally rotting, wounded zombie?
Of course this doesn't jibe the triune bull crap but, nothing does.
garyvdh said…
Your scenario ignores a few important aspects of Christian Theology.

Not all Christians believe that Jesus died for the ALL the sin of the WHOLE WORLD. Most reformed Christians believed that Jesus only died for His chosen ones, this is called the doctrine of Limited Atonement. So in that scenario He did only die for a chosen few. Do a search on the doctrine of "Limited Atonement".

Secondly, when He died He bore the sins of the entire world on His shoulders and on His conscience. I suppose an Atheist could say that he would be WILLING to do that, but would be factually unable to do that since the sacrifice required that an INNOCENT die for the guilty. None of us are innocent so we cannot be an effective substitute, this is the twin doctrine of propitiation/substitution. Look it up as well.

perhaps you should stick to blogging on topics of which you actually know something? Or have done some reasonable research?
Anonymous said…
This seems like a reasonable idea, but I think it is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the Judeo-Christian God.

He is:
*All powerful
*Completely holy and sinless

If you assume the above to be true, and assume that Jesus was God in flesh and lived amongst us, the nature of his sacrifice becomes more clear.

God, through some mystery, allowed himself to be slain by the very disobedient mortals that he was dying to save. By satisfying the Old Testament requirement for sacrifice, and being infinite in nature, the sacrifice becomes infinite in its capacity to save.

Even more mind-boggling is that God would exercise the fullness of his wrath upon himself, ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?") in order to restore his disobedient children to himself ("It is finished.")

Perhaps a better analogy would be this:
Would your hypothetical atheist be prepared to die an excruciating and humiliating death at the hands of his enemies, in order to save the very people who were killing him?

Who are the most offensive people imaginable? Would you die to save them, regardless of whether you believed in a resurrection or not?

On the other hand, what atheist could bear the full wrath of God for even an instant?

But yeah, if Jesus was just a mythical, magical bearded dude with some good philosophies, and accidentally got himself killed, only to disappear into the clouds on easter morning to join santa claus, the easter bunny, and the tooth fairy in heaven, then yeah, your atheist is the better man.

If, on the other hand, Jesus was truly God in flesh, on a mission to reconcile his lost children back to himself, then that explains why there's such a fuss over his sacrifice.

Dig deeper, is all I'm saying.
Stephen Law said…
I am very pleased we are getting some Christians responding to these posts. I’d very much welcome more – not much point engaging only with the converted.

Let me deal with some of your comments.

Garyvdh makes two interesting points:

(i) according to some, Jesus did not die for everyone, just the chosen ones. (I hope they will avoid promote their religion by saying “Jesus died for your sins!” then, as, for all they know, he didn’t.)

(ii) atheists cannot do what Jesus/God did.

These points are both true (and I was, in fact aware of them). But they are irrelevant, aren’t they?

My point is, atheist have willingly made at least as admirable sacrifices. Any many would be willing to make such a sacrifice if they could. That they cannot do what Jesus did is irrelevant, surely.

Anonymous says:

"Perhaps a better analogy would be this: Would your hypothetical atheist be prepared to die an excruciating and humiliating death at the hands of his enemies, in order to save the very people who were killing him? Who are the most offensive people imaginable? Would you die to save them, regardless of whether you believed in a resurrection or not?"

Well, Garyvdh has just provided me with a response to this point: Jesus did NOT die for everyone, so he may well not have died for those who killed him!

But (putting all that Calvinist stuff to one side), actually, an atheist might allow himself to be killed by his own family, if, he loved them deeply, and if he was convinced that, by doing so, he could save them (both their lives and their moral characters). Actually, I suspect I’d do it for my family. And I’d do it knowing I wouldn’t be resurrected. See? – that’s a more admirable sacrifice than Jesus’.

Incidentally, bear in mind I am focussing on what is the most admirable sacrifice, not which is the “greater”, as on some conceptions of “greater”, Jesus’ sacrifice can’t help but be the greatest as he sacrifices God (i.e. himself).

I nearly included Sam’s “Jesus didn’t fully know what was going on” response in my original post. But Jesus clearly knows his death is not the end of him. He is explicit that he’s going to the Kingdom of God, will sit with God, etc., see e.g. Mark 14.25.

But in any case, even if he didn’t know his death would not be the end of him, Jesus’ ignorance of the fact that his death would not be final only then brings his sacrifice up on a level with sacrifices made with atheists (in terms of admirableness). His sacrifice still isn’t more admirable than theirs.
Stephen Law said…
n.b. a "greatest" did slip into original post. Would have been better if I'd used "more admirable".
Anonymous said…
I feel compelled to quote lyrics on this one, from "Tomorrow, Wendy" by Concrete Blonde:

I told the priest/
don't count on any second coming,/
God got his ass kicked/
the last time He came down here slumming/
He had the balls to come,/
the gall to die and then forgive us./
No, I don't wonder why:/
I wonder what he thought it would get us./

Sometimes art is more succinct than argument in speaking the same truths. This lyric alone is enough to support my undying (so far) affection for Johnette Napolitano.
Will Hawthorne said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Will Hawthorne said…

The issue is vastly more complicated than you make it look. At least one important factor you left out is that Jesus experienced God's wrath (or so the Christians would tell you). From within the Christian framework, then, this would be nobler than any earthly death you care to pick.

Tweaking your simplistic cases to include this detail, we get something like:

1*. Bert is convinced he can save all mankind from eternal damnation if he is prepared not only to die horribly, but to have the wrath of a perfectly just God poured out upon him, after which he will be resurrected. He makes the sacrifice.

2. Tim is convinced he can save the lives of several individuals (perhaps his own family) if he is prepared to die rather horribly, period. Tim being an atheist, supposes death is final. He makes the sacrifice.

Once we include details like this (and possibly others), your claim that most of us would do what Jesus did is implausible (or at least, inscrutable).


Stephen Law said…
Hello William

Thanks for comment. Do keep contributing please as these are interesting remarks.

I shall respond to your comment in a main post but first can you clarify something:

(i) why is it necessary that Jesus face "God's wrath"?
(ii) what does facing God's wrath involve?
(iii) does he face it before or after his bodily death?
(iv) where is the evidence to support the view that Jesus faced "God's wrath"? I can't find any in Bible, other than maybe his final "forsaken me" comment (which, I seem to remember, Plantinga takes to be such evidence - do you?).

Also, what are the other "important factors" to which you allude? Let's get them all on the table...

all the best
Stephen Law said…
Oh yes, why would a "perfectly just" God unleash his wrath upon an innocent (Jesus)?

Also, isn't he unleashing it upon himself (given Jesus is God)?

I have this mental image of Jesus giving himself a cosmic bollocking - and perhaps a severe thrashing - for something someone else did.

It all seems utterly absurd to me. Clearly I haven't got it. If you could just talk me through this I'd be grateful, and can then respond more fully.
Will Hawthorne said…

I don’t know the answers to those questions. And I think even if I could suggest possible answers, they’d be theologically controversial at best. But the fact that you implicitly concede that you don’t know what God’s wrath involves, or whether Jesus even endured God’s wrath, only serves to underscore my point: your claim that most of us would do what Jesus did is implausible (or inscrutable). You're realize, I hope, that a philosophically careful comparison of the nobility of deaths in (1) and (2) would require, for the sake of the thought experiment, that we suppose the Christian framework is legitimate. And once we do that, we’re left with all sorts of possible details to consider. Some of them we might not even be able to make sense of, and some might in principle be unknowable.

If you really want to show decisively that Jesus’ death was less noble than the atheist’s, you’d be forced (awkwardly, given your atheism) to put on the theologian’s gown and wrestle with a variety of nuanced theological interpretations of Christ’s work, all of which will have a bearing on your intuitions when judging the two deaths. For an example of just one interpretation, many theologians believe Christ went to Hell after he died, and was saved by God (Himself) thereafter. What’s easier to face: nothingness, or a temporary stay in Hell? Seen in this light, I doubt many people could confidently claim that they’d do what Christ did. And it won't do to respond by asking what Hell involves, and why it was necessary that Christ vacationed there. For if we don't know the answers to those questions, we have even less of a basis to justifiably assert that most of us would do what Jesus did, much less that an atheist’s death is nobler than Jesus’.

Will Hawthorne said…
Here are a few more important factors that, I think, would pull our intuitions in different directions (perhaps when I have more time, I'll add more). I'll briefly comment on each of them.

1. Christ went to Hell after he died.

I discussed this above.

2. Christ didn't know that he'd be resurrected.

Many theologians argue that when Christ suffered on the cross, he relinquished his divine attributes (e.g. omniscience). This would imply that he didn't know for sure that he'd eventually be saved. Whether a death is noble or not depends, in part, on what the subject knows (or believes) before dying. If an atheist believed she'd be reincarnated into a better life, say, she might very well be cheerful to die for her immediate family. If Christ didn't believe that he'd be saved, he'd have less motivation for dying for humanity. So who's death was nobler, given their individual perspectives?

3. Qualitatively speaking, Christ's suffering may have lasted much longer than we suppose (perhaps even infinitely).

Conceive of yourself falling into a deep sleep for a year. You have a nightmare in which you consciously experience 50 years of humiliation and mental anguish, even though you've only aged 1 year. (In support of this metaphysical possibility, consider the fact that you can actually have nightmares that seem to last for hours, even though only about 12 seconds has elapsed.) Now go back to Christ on the cross. It may be that, in suffering God's wrath, he consciously experienced thousands of (or perhaps an infinite amount of) years of punishment and humiliation for the sins of those he reportedly died for. And all this took place in the course of 3 days. And what does the atheist consciously experience when she dies? Well, nothing! Seen in this light, I doubt many of us would prefer Christ's death over the atheist's, even if Christ eventually 'woke up' from his nightmare.

Now all of these are epistemic possibilities which we must take seriously, at least if we are to work in the Christian theological framework for the sake of the thought experiment. As long as any one of them has a probability of, say, .5 (=agnosticism) or higher, given the Christian theological framework within which we're working, then we can't quite declare with any confidence that most of us would do what Christ did.

And if any one of them is inscrutable (which seems more plausible), then there's all the more reason to think that we can't confidently assert that most of us would do what Christ did, or that Christ's death was less noble than an atheist's.

Further, the deaths might be incommensurable to begin with, since one involves nothingness, and the other involves pain (or lots of pain, and then bliss). It's notoriously difficult to even conceive of a state of nothingness. It wouldn't seem to make sense, e.g., for an atheist to feel unhappy at the prospects of entering into a state of nothingness, for she simply wouldn't even be "there" to care, would she? On what basis, then, can we compare nothingness, on one hand, to really bad suffering (possibly an infinite amount, given 3. above) and then a resurrection, on the other?
Jezebeau said…

Concerning epistemic possibilities, the atheist is certain their consciousness will cease to exist, absolutely and permanently. In contrast, while Jesus didn't know he'd be resurrected, I find it impossible to accept that he wouldn't have full faith in joining God in heaven. In some doctrines he is not believed to have experienced Hell, and the lines referring to such are merely expressing the effect of his sacrifice upon its denizens (ie: Thomas Aquinas' interpretation).

If his lack of omniscience and foreknowledge is one of your arguments, then it's not reasonable to include the actual, tormented, outcome of his death in summation of his sacrifice, as we are arguing what he willingly gave up. Jesus gave up his life to save humankind and sit at the right hand of God, whilst an atheist gives up their life to save a few lives and ceases to consciously exist.

That said, the side of this particular debate that hasn't been explored is motivation, which is significant in determining the nobility of a sacrifice. Jesus' sacrifice was absolutely altruistic. As on who believes in oblivion after death, there are other factors should I be forced to make such a decision. If the people I sacrificed myself to save were people I didn't know, then I would argue my motivation just as altruistic. However, if I care about the people I'm dying to save, then I become more selfish. In dying in their stead, I do not suffer the grief of their loss, and am remembered for my final sacrifice, but I shift grief onto the people I save. If, on the other hand, I live, their suffering ends with their deaths while mine continues, potentially for the rest of my life. With that forethought, it's an easy decision to make, but for simply having had that thought, my sacrifice is less noble.
Anonymous said…
I've just read through these comments and I have something to say about the most recent one by William Hawthorne. It's not really a very interesting point, just that as an atheist I am often asking my religious friends, "How could you be satisfied in resigning yourself to Heaven, knowing that many of your friends and relations are burning in Hell for all eternity?"

I know a few atheists (myself certainly) who would rather burn in Hell on principal. You probably think that I'm saying that whilst underestimating the hellishness and nastiness of Hell, and under such conditions I would change my mind. To be honest, I am not sure if I would change my mind, but I would certainly in principle prefer the Hell option. I could say a lot about God's so-called 'justness' but that's besides the point. Anyway... So even if Jesus died and William Hawthorne's last comment is in fact right... I still don't see how it makes an atheist's death less noble, as many I'm sure would still be willing to die and suffer in hell for years and years and years to spare their loved ones.

Another point is this...
I mean if Hell's eternal, and Heaven's eternal, aren't we kinda underestimating the amazing vastness of eternity. I mean, after eternity... would it all just be so monotonous as to be meaningless? For what is good without bad and bad without good? Surely an eternity of either is both equally as "nothing" as the other? We as human's can't imagine exactly what an electron would look like... At such a tiny scale it is impossible to represent such a thing to the human eye. Isn't time similar? I mean, it's like saying, "can a fly see a pyramid?"... Wouldn't time be so big that it would just be meaningless. dearie me I don't think I'm very good at saying things that I think, so sorry for sounding quite stupid.
ZAROVE said…
Why is it that the ever educate and enlightened Atheists make this rather silly argument often? For one thing, and htis is a very important first thing to udnerstand, Jesus's Sacrifice was nto about giuving up his life.

Your usign a Modern Definition of the word "Sacrifice", which mean you give somethign up, but thats not what the Sacrifice of Jesus was mean to convey. It was linked to the Jewish Temple Sacrifices, and meant that he made Holy or Pure the Recipeants. Sacrifice in English coems from the Latin Sacrificium, which means to Set Apart and Make Holy. It was about setting somethign apart that woudl ritually purify you. Jesus's Sacririce set him apart, and rendered the world clenced of Sin.

Thats what the term "Sacrifice" means. Stop trying to redefine the term in modern usage, its as Embarrasing as when Ahtiests claim Faith is irrational as its beleif without evidence when the word never meant that Bistorically.L
If a psychiatrist is following the life of Jesus, then after a maniform phase a depressive one was following.
We have had a Hungarian nationalist poet of Slovakian origin (Sándor Petőfi born as Alexander Petrovics) who let erupt the 1848 Revolution in (Buda)Pesth and diseappeared disappointedly in a battle of the Polish General Józef Bem of the Revolutionary Government in Transsilvania 1849.
macroman said…
And in case no one has mentioned it, the sign outside many a church saying "god so loved the world that he gave up his only son" is very misleading too. Even if giving up your son is admirable, God knows he is not giving up his son at all, not permanently.

Popular posts from this blog


(Published in Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Stephen Law. Pages 129-151) EVIDENCE, MIRACLES AND THE EXISTENCE OF JESUS Stephen Law Abstract The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of indepen

What is Humanism?

What is Humanism? “Humanism” is a word that has had and continues to have a number of meanings. The focus here is on kind of atheistic world-view espoused by those who organize and campaign under that banner in the UK and abroad. We should acknowledge that there remain other uses of term. In one of the loosest senses of the expression, a “Humanist” is someone whose world-view gives special importance to human concerns, values and dignity. If that is what a Humanist is, then of course most of us qualify as Humanists, including many religious theists. But the fact remains that, around the world, those who organize under the label “Humanism” tend to sign up to a narrower, atheistic view. What does Humanism, understood in this narrower way, involve? The boundaries of the concept remain somewhat vague and ambiguous. However, most of those who organize under the banner of Humanism would accept the following minimal seven-point characterization of their world-view.

Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism refuted

Here's my central criticism of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). It's novel and was published in Analysis last year. Here's the gist. Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true - that's to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga's argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it's actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns o