Ask Pastor Tyler: Often I will have people ask amazing questions via email, text, or in person. So, I will occasionally turn them into blog posts for those interested. I’ve found that so many of us are all thinking about the same things.
Today’s question is this: Christianity seems to be a very bloody religion. Is animal sacrifice (to the gods) a pagan concept that Christianity ripped off?
As Christians, we sing a lot about the “blood of Christ.” Some of these songs as famous favorites, but the imagery is still a little strange: “What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. . .Oh precious is the flow, that makes me white as snow. . .” Or:
“There is a fountain that I see//Filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s vein//The sinners, sinners plunged beneath that blood//Lose all their guilty stains.”
That last one is particularly odd; a “fountain of blood” sounds more like a horror flick than good news to modern ears. Although these songwriters probably took the image a little far, the picture and visual of blood does come from the Bible, like 1 John 1:7: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” And Ephesians 2:13: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
As my friend asked me recently, does this make Christianity a bloody, barbaric, pagan religion?
On the surface, because the ancient culture of the Bible is so different from our own, many things in it can seem primitive and pagan. But if we look closely at Christ’s death, we’ll see that it’s very different from these ancient religions. There are some clear contrasts with paganism and Judeo-Christianity.
For example, pagan gods are often hungry, needy, volatile, and demanding. They’re moody and they need constant blood. And their bloodlust is not just limited to animals, pagan gods often demanded infants, children, or adults. Human blood. And the gods need people to feed and serve them. In fact, this is paganism’s “chief end of man”: to pacify the gods and serve them forever.
But in Christianity, God makes humans to be in relationship with them. When that relationship gets broken, and things go off the rails, God eventually comes down to us, in the person of Jesus, and serves US through a sacrifice. In Christianity, God doesn’t demand blood, he becomes human and gives of his blood (sacrifices his life).
In this, Christianity isn’t very bloody at all! Only one person dies. He gives his life voluntarily, taking all the sin, suffering, and evil onto himself. In this way, Christ’s death is less pagan, and more like the stories we all love and remember. So many stories and books and movies demonstrate that this theme means so much to us as humans, like in Harry Potter or Stranger Things. I would argue that these myths that deeply resonate with us point to the source of these myths, a God who sacrifices himself for us. In this, it’s not so much the blood itself that forgive us. There’s nothing magical about it. But blood is a powerful piece of life, and of death. When we say “the blood of Jesus” forgives us, we mean that Jesus’ substitute and sacrificing his life is what brings us forgiveness.
Now, when some people think of a bloody Christianity, they might be referring back to the Old Testament. But even before Jesus, Judaism (Old Testament) is also very different from paganism.
A) One fact that often gets missed is that animal sacrifice, in the Old Testament, sometimes function as a BBQ. A party. Simply enjoying some good meat with family and friends. Yes it's bloody, in the same way that a butcher shop is bloody. Not a bad thing if you clean up well.
B) Also, as mentioned above, God commands animal sacrifice, unlike the surrounding cultures which killed humans. God is moving his people in a different direction (eventually ending all sacrifice with Jesus).
C) Sometimes these sacrifices are meant to show the seriousness of a moral failure, highlighting the principle that our actions affect those around us. In this ancient culture, these signs and symbols were hugely important. But Christianity put a stop to these practices.
Christianity is definitely still strange, and as Russell Moore has argued, we should keep it that way. Our culture is desperate for the transcendent and true. We should explain Christianity in the vernacular (common language), without religious clichés, but still in a way that keeps the central message (which is a strange one). But remember, Christianity was just as strange back then as it is now. God breaks in on both paganism AND progressivism, rattling pre-modernity, modernity, and post-modernity. So, #KeepChristianityWeird, but also in a way that’s historically reliable and culturally understandable.