The Sacrifice of Isaac, the Crucifixion of Jesus, and the God of Love

“Why, in the story of Abraham and Isaac, did no-one suggest that human sacrifice is wrong, or that Abraham had no right to human-sacrifice his child?” (from Paul, The Bible for Atheists #5)

How did idolatry and the sacrificial system begin? The Bible does not attempt to explain the existence of idolatry and the sacrificial system of religious practice at all. The New International Bible Dictionary states, “The first clear case of idolatry in the Bible is the account of Rachel stealing her father’s teraphim, which were images of household gods (Genesis chapter 31, verse 19).” (“Idolatry”, page 460). Similarly, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, in chapter 22 of Genesis serves only to point to the existence of human sacrifice, not it’s origin. This illustrates the fact that the Bible was never intended to be an complete historical record, nor contain scientific truth. Its purpose is entirely different.

Philosopher and theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg, proposes one theory accounting for these origins: “… the ancients designated the One Only God by various names, according to the various things that were from Him; … But when the Ancient Church declined, they began to worship as many gods as there were names for the One Only God, and also of themselves added to them many more. This practice at last became so prevalent that every family had its own god, and they wholly distinguished him from the rest who were worshiped by other families.” (Heavenly Secrets, paragraph 5628)

He proposes a parallel descent with regard to religious practice: at one time, ancient peoples used external ritual to represent inner processes and realities, but in course of time, the meaning of these rituals were forgotten, the physical acts became of supreme importance in themselves, and completely external in focus (Heavenly Secrets, paragraphs 9391, 10042). Human sacrifice developed as a corruption of the pure religious practice of the ancients. Archeological evidence seems to affirm these ideas: the earliest peoples, living in small family groups, did not at first practice human sacrifice, it seems to have developed as larger societies and nations formed, and it is probable that it took on the purpose of social control, reinforcing the emerging differentiated hierarchies. (

In terms of technological development, we might view these larger, cohesive and more powerful nations as an ascent. But reading ethically, morally, and spiritually, anyone can see this is a degeneration from the respect for human life inherent in a functioning and loving family to a careless disregard for the lives of others. This is the degenerate “norm” into which Abraham was born and from which he was called out, along with the nations and religions he fathered.

The story of the Bible is the story of our spiritual progress: like the creation myth, it leads from darkness to light, chaos to order, from nature to spirit, from self and the world to the Lord and the neighbour. It is not really necessary to know these our problems come from, other than their origin within the heart of mankind. We simply need to know that they do exist, and that we are to be led out of them.

Now, given that child sacrifice existed, how should we unlearn it? How do you learn anything?

First of all, we should acknowledge that the motivation of an individual may be pure, even though the means by which it is expressed is corrupt.

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart— These, O God, You will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)

“… sacrifices were not commanded, but permitted; … nothing else was regarded in the sacrifices than what is internal; and that it was the internal, not the external, that was acceptable.” (AC 2180.7)

That Lord accepts the motivation, and strives – where possible – to correct the false principles, which we may have absorbed from our upbringing or culture. This is how Swedenborg describes the progress of this story:

“[Abraham], like other Gentiles, was an idolater, and …while living in the land of Canaan, he had not rejected from his mind the god Shaddai … the Lord by no means desires to destroy suddenly (still less in a single moment) the worship that has been inseminated in anyone from his infancy; for this would be to tear up the root, and thereby destroy the holy state of adoration and of worship that has been deeply implanted, and which the Lord never breaks, but bends. The holy state of worship, that has been rooted in from infancy is of such a nature that it cannot endure violence, but only a gentle and kindly bending. (Heavenly Secrets, paragraph 1992, sections 3,4)

“… the Lord keeps man in freedom and bends him towards good.” (Heavenly Secrets, paragraph 9587)

“… the Lord never breaks a man’s understanding of truth, but bends it as far as possible.” (Heavenly Secrets, paragraph 9039 – [Examples], also 9258 section 3)

Couldn’t mankind learn a principle as important as this just by being told? It would be easier, wouldn’t it, just to get the complete instruction manual to life? But ask yourself this: when have you ever learned something just by being told? Is that realistic? We don’t work that way!

“… it is in accordance with the laws of order that no one should become convinced of the truth instantaneously, that is, should instantaneously be made so sure of the truth that he is left in no doubt at all about it. The reason for this is that when truth is impressed on a person in that kind of way, he becomes so fully convinced of it that it cannot be broadened in any way or qualified in any way. …

“… in the next life as soon as some truth is presented through plain experience to good spirits, some opposing idea giving rise to doubt is presented. In this way they are led to think and ponder over whether it is indeed a truth, gather reasons in support of it, and so introduce that truth into their minds by the use of reason. This enables their spiritual vision in respect of that truth to be broadened, seeing even into the ideas that are opposed to it.” (Heavenly Secrets, paragraph 7298)

We’ve all had this experience, of hearing someone tell us some truth, only to find the opposite thought drop into our minds to challenge it. We may indeed accept that truth further down the track, but the thought of its opposite has (if anything) been part of the process by which the principle itself is accepted and learned. Truths may enter our memory, but they will never really enter our lives until they’ve been tried and tested.

Even if we only see the Bible as an manual on the moral and ethical questions of life, we can see that it would be useful for such a book to contain instructive counter examples, tales of destruction in which the consequences of choosing the negative path are allowed to play out. But seen spiritually, these stories show us the judgement and casting away of the negative attributes that we abandon in our progress towards heaven. They are an essential part of the road we all travel.

Back to the original question. Several weeks passed after Paul wrote it, he wrote again, assuming that I was unable to offer an adequate answer:

“Heh, no answer I see. It’s a real tarpit for christians, because the foundation of Christianity is the human sacrifice of god the son by god the father. The best they can give as an answer is that the crucifixion of Jesus fulfilled all the sacrifices ever, so we don’t need to do them anymore. Which does not address the problem of why human sacrifice in the first place?” (Paul)

… and he has a good point! This is perhaps the foremost reason so many people find Christianity difficult to accept.

The meaning of the crucifixion

Swedenborg writes, “The Lord was willing to undergo spiritual tests, including even the suffering on the cross, because he was the ultimate prophet. The prophets stood for the church’s teachings from the Word. As a result they represented the nature of the church in various way … In the Lord’s case, however, he was the Word itself. During his suffering on the cross he was the ultimate prophet, representing the way the Jewish church had desecrated the Word.” (True Christian Religion, paragraph 129)

In other words, the crucifixion was significant because it reflects our own tendencies and mankind’s spiritual state at that time. They carried out on the physical plane what they had already done to their religion in their hearts and minds.

He also writes, “Suffering on the cross was … a means of glorifying his human nature, that is, of uniting that nature to his Father’s divine nature. It was not redemption.” (True Christian Religion, paragraph 126)

That idea is a game changer. It was men who executed Jesus, not God.

“Redemption and the suffering on the cross must be seen as separate. Otherwise the human mind gets wrecked as a ship does on sandbars or rocks, causing the loss of the ship, the helmsman, the captain, and the sailors. It goes astray in everything having to do with salvation by the Lord.” (True Christian Religion, paragraph 127)

“This idea of God and redemption has reduced the whole of theology from the spiritual to the lowest natural level, by attributing to God purely natural properties.” (True Christian Religion, paragraph 133)

What did we need saving from? Certainly not the wrath of God, but from the evil of men. We need salvation from our own evil. The Bible, being written according to appearances, describes the wrath of God because that is what it looks like to us in our regressive states. It is something we project upon God but it can never actually be a quality of the God Who Is Love. And this God of Love could never demand sacrifice in any form, let alone human sacrifice.

“It is contrary to the Divine Itself [which is Love] to be reconciled by the shedding of blood, and to be brought back to mercy by beholding the passion of the cross which His own Son sustained, and from this to have mercy, and not from Himself. Although this doctrine is so contrary to the Divine essence, yet to believe this is called [by the churches] essential faith or justifying faith.” (Apocalypse Explained, paragraph 328, section 3)

English evangelist, Rico Tice, comes close to a reasonable explanation of the need for a sacrifice – he writes that justice is important, because you’ve been hurt, and it matters to God. Following on from that, if you’re interested in justice for the wrongs done to you, then you want those who have done you wrong to be punished. But are you as keen to receive your own just desserts, too? It doesn’t work because God’s paying the penalty for sin by a substitutionary human sacrifice would never satisfy our thirst for justice. There would still be people who, in claiming the name of Jesus, could “get away with murder.”

The fact is, it is humanity who are obsessed with justice, not God. Jesus taught – and modelled – forgiveness:

Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21,22)

Even from the cross, Jesus said: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

If you are familiar with the Bible story, you can trace how it carries us away from vengeance to forgiveness. Left to ourselves, we overdo revenge – one punch for the punch you gave me, and another punch so you don’t do it again. But the laws of Moses limit that retribution (“an eye for an eye”, Exodus 21:24). Then, the Psalms encourage us to leave vengeance in the hands of God, it is His responsibility to punish the evil, not ours (again, that’s an appearance for the sake of the lesson). And finally, in the gospels, we learn forgiveness, letting go of vengeance altogether.

The important thing to remember is that we are led in that direction because it is the very nature of God. It’s not something He’s telling us to do without being prepared to do it Himself. But we are nevertheless led, never pushed or compelled. The Lord leaves the decision to us, because this is the only way the heart is truly changed, and it is the change of heart which is the Lord’s priority and focus.


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