A Long Answer in a World Of Short Cuts
Like most thinking people, I have questions about my faith that are difficult to answer. However, as I have evaluated evidence for and against Christianity, several key factors have come together to convince me that Jesus was who He said He was.
In this post, I'm not going to try to convince you that my belief system is more correct than yours. I am, however, going to try to show you the "why" behind one element of my faith that might seem odd (if not barbaric) to non Christians.
Why would I take the time to give a long answer in a world of short cuts? I'm doing this because in volatile times like ours, I think it's important to share extended human stories that help us understand one another a little better.
I've been thinking about writing this post for quite a while, but my biggest hesitation has been that the subject is complex and a bit academic. I can't dig into this topic in 800 words. Even in a 3000-word essay, I can only barely touch on the ideas I would like to communicate.
So my goal here isn't to unpack all of the beautiful complexities of this subject but to let you know that this sort of narrative exists. Maybe in additional posts we can get deeper in to what I can only summarize now.
THE OLD TESTAMENT SYSTEM OF SACRIFICING ANIMALS
The Old Testament system of sacrifice seems cruel, superstitious, and pointless to many modern thinkers because we live in an era when humans work for the ethical treatment of animals. The idea of killing a living being for meat is hard for some of us, let alone the thought of killing a living being to try to pay for human wrongs done.
Not only does the practice of animal sacrifice seem abhorrent and inhumane, the word “sin” can feel primitive and offensive to many of us. The idea that there is some sort of universal standard of right and wrong can seem preposterous to the humanist. It can also feel dangerous because determining what qualifies as "sin" also claims a huge amount of cultural power.
In addition to all of this, the thought of a substitute paying for sin seems bizarre to many moderns. We live in an era in which individualism is valued, where crime is paid for by the single person who committed that crime. We don't pay for mistakes in clans any more; each person’s innocence or guilt stands on its own.
So before we begin, if a conversation about animal sacrifice, sin, or guilt seems odd to you, I can understand why. Even though I believe in Jesus, I can empathize with these three intellectual and ethical barriers on multiple levels. I have also wrestled with how these concepts could have ever been moral and just, and in future posts, I’d like to take time to tell you more about my journey in working through them.
For this post, however, I'm not going to have room to unpack why I believe universal ethics exist or why I believe it is possible for the sin of one person to be paid for by the sacrifice of another being. I'm just going to acknowledge that those are important questions, and that I don't think you're not way off base if they come to your mind as you read.
In terms of what we do know about the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, it's scientifically confirmed that Hebrew texts describing this process predate Christ. The Dead Sea Scrolls were carbon dated multiple times by the same process used to date artifacts from other cultures. The confirmed age of these scrolls doesn’t make them true, of course, but it does mean that we know that the content of those scrolls existed before the date in which Jesus supposedly appeared on earth.
When we go to the store and buy a "Bible" the chronology of the text can sometimes get smashed in our minds. What we don't see in a tidy little leather bound book is that this isn't simply one entity, written by one person at one desk, but a collection of ancient documents that spans millennia.
This matters quite a bit because it's actually a big deal when a narrative scientifically confirmed as a 1st century CE document was predicted by a mirror story scientifically confirmed to exist 300 or more years before that. And when hundreds or thousands of tiny narrative details line up precisely across all those centuries, we have quite a coincidence on our hands.
One way those details line up across millennia is in the Hebrew temple narrative. I’m not a huge expert on the Hebrew temple or the process of sacrifice, but I do know enough to share a little bit with you. So here goes:
THE PHYSICAL LAYOUT OF THE TEMPLE
Essentially the temple and surrounding area were set up so that different people were allowed in different parts for different purposes. At the center of this activity was the Ark of the Covenant (remember the Indiana Jones movie?) Being near that ark was a beautiful and dangerous thing, because the ark represented a manifestation of the actual presence of God.
God was still omnipresent in those days. (That word means that He still existed everywhere.) But because of the inter-millennia story He was telling with the temple, He chose to reveal a concentrated aspect of His being in a unique way in the physical space in and around the Ark of the Covenant.
Some of the temple areas were only accessible by priests—and those priests could only enter certain areas certain times of the year to accomplish certain tasks. These rules didn’t exist just to create some sort of pecking order among the people of God; they existed to show the Hebrews how God’s holiness was serious and intense. Just like few of us would charge confidently into the inner workings of a nuclear reactor, the architecture of the temple was constructed so that the holiness of God would be respected.
These rules also existed to help provide a metaphor that spans hundreds of years, a multi-generational story explaining how God was working from the beginning of our species to build a unique bridge between humanity and Himself.
I love many things about my God, but his artistry in weaving the Old and New Testaments together is a source of particular awe for me. Painters use darkness to emphasize light. Musicians use harmonic tension to highlight release. Novelists use conflict to point to dramatic resolution. But in the story of the Hebrew temple, the relief of grace is revealed by the pressures of the law.
God didn't tell this story quickly. He told it using many generations of complicated human life, and I'm not sure why He did it this way. I'm sensitive enough to grieve for those people who lived in the dark expanse of time before the ultimate meaning of this story was revealed. What would it have been like to spend an entire human life in the shadow that would eventually open to light? (And what is it like for the many who still live in the shadows now?) Writing that makes my chest hurt. But I have slowly learned enough about God's character to trust that as He was creating this master narrative over thousands of years, He was also aware of what happened in every second of every individual experience. And whatever wasn't fair in the temporal realm, I believe He will make right as the trajectory of this story extends into eternity.
If you have a moment to find a Bible and read through the book of Hebrews, chapters 9-10, that would be super helpful. Here we find the author of Hebrews describing how the old temple worked as a symbol of Jesus 1000 years before his appearance. (And by the way, the tabernacle--the portable temple of the Hebrews which worked in a similar fashion--was created long before that.)
Every time I engage with Hebrews 9-10, I’m reminded of Plato’s Theory of Forms. First introduced in his dialogue The Phaedo, the theory of the Forms indicates that whatever exists on earth in a physical way has a more perfect representation in a transcendent (non-physical) realm.
I don’t know how much the audience of the book of Hebrews knew about Greek philosophy, but I have to smile when I see the similarities here. The letter to the Hebrews describes the physical structure of the Hebrew temple and then says:
“Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”
In other words, everything that happened in the temple for all those years was just a copy of what Jesus was going to do a thousand years later. What Jesus did on earth inside His body sits on a trajectory that extends into heaven.
This reminds me of a mathematical fractal that exists in both a small and expanded version. Primitive forms of covering sin were like sobering, heart-sinking placeholders, early indications of what sin would cost in the body of the Son of God.
If you have ever slaughtered an animal, you know what sort of hard work it is. Even my veterinarian friend, who deals with the loss of animal life every day, is moved to see the spirit of a living being disappear. By these small sacrifices (which actually go back to the animal skin covering God made Adam and Eve after the first sin), the people of God were shown that doing evil was costly and serious business.
But lost animals were only a reminder of the greater death involved in sin. The human also dies because of his or her own wickedness, both in body and in spirit. And no animal sacrifice could compensate for the willful rebellion of a being made in God's image.
The book of Hebrews acknowledges this limitation. It says,
“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’”
This is where we see the end goal of all that sacrifice and loss. The body that will ultimately receive the consequence of human error is not animal, nor is it human. It is a body so perfect and so strong that it can hold all the sin of the whole world inside it. And it is so perfect that when it offers itself as a payment for evil done, the trade is even. The ledger is settled.
This post is already too long, but there is one more element of this that I want to point out before closing out for today.
In the temple, a curtain separated the Ark of the Covenant from the people. Only certain priests could approach God's physical presence in certain ways, because His holiness was such a mighty and pure power.
But that curtain reappears in the New Testament as the body of Jesus. We see this in Hebrews 10:20 ("by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh"), but we also see it at the crucifixion, because at the death of Jesus, the physical curtain in the temple suddenly tore in half from top to bottom.
In other words, this physical piece of fabric which for centuries had symbolized humanity's distance from God ripped clean through. The New Testament is making a huge claim here. It is saying, finally, that Jesus has completed every symbol that existed in the Hebrew Temple. He has made it possible for us to access God. The barrier is now gone because of the forgiveness he offers.
I've studied literature for decades, and I've studied quite a bit of ancient literature in that time span. I get paid to understand the inner dynamics of novels and to pick apart how narrative unity and symbol work together to demonstrate greater meaning.
In all my reading, I have never found imagery from one novelist that functions as tightly as Biblical imagery does-- imagery that is scientifically confirmed to have emerged from time spans hundreds of years apart.
This single example that I have provided today is only one of hundreds and hundreds. I don't see how any cult, how any political force, or even any sincere group of confused individuals could have created such unity over so many centuries. The chances of such artistry such existing are incredibly slim.
It would take me thirty years to describe the many more connections I have found over a lifetime of studying the Bible. People who don't know me will probably think that I am looking for connections because I want to find them, but in reality, it's been hard for me to live a life of faith. My beliefs have cost me a great deal, and there have been many times when it would have been easier to simply walk away from them.
I'm also not building a career around any sort of faith persona. I'm intentionally keeping this blog simple and nerdy. I'm intentionally writing essays that few readers will take the time or energy to absorb instead of pumping out easy-to-digest-and-forward pieces of writing.
I'm taking time to provide the long version of what I see as truth in an era when short answers spread like wildfire because God tends to speak to me in long answers. Maybe you are wired like that as well.
Anyway, hope that this is somehow helpful. I respect any ideological differences we might have, and I hope that you will tell me your stories as well. Of course, I do hope that you will come to love the God of the Ark of the Covenant like I do. I think He loved you so much that He tore down the curtain between you and Him by allowing His own body to absorb your mistakes, so that you might live in the sweet, beautiful mystery of His love forever and ever. But I don't expect that process of faith to happen quickly or as a result of rhetorical pressure from me, if it happens at all. Conversations about religion have become complicated, and there's so much noise in the air these days. For what it's worth, I'm patient. Let's keep the conversation going.