Jesus, World War 2, and the true meaning of sacrifice

WW2 posterBefore I get into the meat of this post, I want to share a link to a short video about what I’ll be discussing. I would like you to watch it before we continue. It will take about five minutes of your time. Here’s the link: See you soon.

Back? Good! Now that you’ve gotten your feet wet, let’s delve into the topic a bit more.

When Americans Practiced Human Sacrifice 

In the early 1940s, America was fighting for its survival against a trio of brutal totalitarian states. Today we know how it turned out: Germany, Japan, and Italy were defeated and democracy was preserved. But, at the time, that outcome was by no means certain. Americans worked, saved, prayed, bought war bonds, gathered scrap metal, lived on rations, and watched the skies for enemy bombers  It was a scary, uncertain, trying time for the nation and for the world.

Of all the things people gave up to win that conflict, the most painful sacrifice of all was the 418,500 Americans who were killed. Today we hear about servicemen and women dying by the hundreds and shake our heads in disbelief. Yet in those dark days hundreds of thousands gave their lives for victory over a monstrous enemy. Their sacrifices kept the Nazis and their allies from plunging the world into eternal darkness.

“I understand. But what does that have to do with Jesus and the cross?”

That’s a fair question. Here’s the answer. Christianity has always taught that Jesus died to redeem the world. But exactly how his death accomplishes this goal has been discussed and debated for 2,000 years. Most modern Christians were taught the penal-substitutionary or vicarious atonement view of the crucifixion. It says that Christ’s death appeased God’s desire to punish humanity. This is the “good news” that the penal-substitutionary view proclaims. It can be summed up as follows:

1. We humans are evil, no-good scum.
2. God hates us and wants to torture us forever.
3. But, also, God loves us (or some of us, as Calvinists teach). So he sent Jesus to endure all the anger and hatred he feels for us by dying on the cross.
4. If we believe point # 3, God will give us a break and lets us into heaven. But, if we fail to believe it, then God will throw us into a burning pit that will melt the flesh off our bodies over and over forever.

This view portrays God as an angry deity whose wrath must be appeased by blood sacrifice. Preachers have used it for centuries to terrorize their congregations. A prime historical example is from the sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, delivered by Calvinist preacher Jonathan Edwards in 1741. Here’s an excerpt:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.

So much for “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”

Fortunately, this sick viewpoint has never been held universally throughout the church. An alternative approach is the one discussed by Greg Boyd in the video you watched earlier: the Christus Victor, or “victorious Christ” view. Like the penal-substitutionary theory, it sees Christ’s death as a sacrifice for the good of humanity. Unlike that view, however, it sees the powers of evil, not God, as the enemy whom Jesus came to earth to defeat.

This is a crucial difference that has enormous implications for how one understands the Gospel. In the penal-substitutionary view, God is our enemy. He can only be turned from his anger towards us by the death of an innocent sacrifice. In the Christus Victor view, however, our adversary is the forces of wickedness as represented by Satan. He holds us captive by manipulating us into committing selfish actions, without regard for the well-being of others. We believe that this “me first” attitude is a sure ticket to happiness. In reality, however, it’s poison to our souls.

The devil is a con artist. He tricks us into doing things that will deny us the joy and fulfillment we seek. We think that once we make a million dollars, or get a trophy spouse, or have a bigger house than our neighbor, then we will finally be happy. But, like a mirage in the desert, the goal of happiness remains just outside our reach. Our answer to this dilemma is to become even more self-obsessed and even more unwilling to face up to our shortcomings.

We justify in ourselves the faults we condemn in others. We play vicious little games with friends and family members. We read books like The Art of War or Winning by Intimidation and think that their advice is sound.

We lust. We gossip. We betray. We smile in people’s faces even as we stab them in the back. We look down on others so we can feel better about ourselves. And all the time we’re doing these things we’re driving a knife into our own hearts. Yet we’re too blind to see that our real enemy is ourselves.

That’s what damnation is. It’s suicide on the installment plan. That is what Jesus came to save us from. How he accomplished that is what we will look at next time.