29 April 2015
Do Passover and Easter Make Sense?
How to View Religious Holidays
April 26, 2015
The religious holidays earlier this month, Passover and Easter, raise interesting issues: Do the holidays’ central stories make sense and, if they do not, then how should we view them?
Consider Passover. Passover is an Exodus-inspired holiday in which Jewish people celebrate God’s having liberated them from slavery in Ancient Egypt. In the Passover story, God freed Jews from slavery by inflicting ten plagues on ancient Egyptians before their leader, the pharaoh, agreed to let the Israelites go. The tenth plague involved the angel of death (or, perhaps, God himself) killing the Egyptians’ first-born sons. The Israelites avoided having their sons killed by putting the blood of a slaughtered lamb on their doors so that the angel of death knew to pass over their houses. During the plagues, the pharaoh would have relented and freed the Israelites, so God hardened the pharaoh’s heart so that he wouldn’t relent. God did this to show his immense power. Even after the plagues, the pharaoh’s army pursued the Israelites. God parted the Red Sea and after the Israelites passed through he then closed it, drowning the Egyptian Army.
The story makes no sense, at least if God is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful. First, consider God’s hardening of pharaoh’s heart. Why would he do that? It led to immense suffering. Surely, he might have communicated his greatness in ways that didn’t involve bringing widespread suffering and death to the Egyptian people. Given that God allowed himself to manipulate pharaoh’s mind, he could have just as easily given the pharaoh a love of freedom or the Israelites and thus created a beautiful path by which Israelites escaped bondage.
Second, why would God kill the Egyptian’s first-born sons? They were innocents and it is a standard principle of morality that it is wrong to kill innocent people. This is especially true when the innocents are women and children. It is odd to see Jews joyously celebrating the death of Egyptian children, albeit as a means to their freedom.
Third, God if insisted on killing (see the tenth plague), he could have killed the Egyptian soldiers rather than first-born sons. The soldiers were going to die anyway and the angel of death was already in the Egyptians’ homes. There was nothing to be gained by adding to the carnage.
Fourth, God could have made the Egyptian soldiers and their horses lame rather than drowning them. This would have ended their pursuit without horrible drownings.
Easter also makes little sense. It celebrates Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. According the Bible, the Romans crucified him and he lay dead and buried for two days. On the third day, God raised him from the dead. Many Christians celebrate Easter by receiving the Eucharist. Some denominations (for example, Catholicism) hold that the Eucharist is literally the body and blood of Christ. Other Christian denominations hold that it is merely symbolic.
Atonement, closely related to the resurrection, lies at the heart of Christianity. Atonement theory asserts that the suffering and death of Jesus explains why God forgives or pardons people for their sins. The Bible repeatedly asserts this. Yet atonement is a bizarre notion. A standard principle of morality is that it is wrong to punish one person for what another did. Yet Christian doctrine holds that people are forgiven by their sins because Jesus was punished. This is like punishing a mother of a rapist for what her son did and, after doing so, deciding that the rapist need not be punished.
The Eucharist makes even less sense as all of something - Jesus’ body - cannot be in two different locations (for example, Dunkirk and Hartford).
Little noticed about the holidays is that Judaism and Christianity contradict one another. The former holds that the messiah has not yet come and that God is a unified individual. It also forbids people to be worshiped as it considered idolatry. Thus, Jews hold that Jesus is a false messiah and, hence, Christianity is false.
If the Passover or Easter story is literally true, then it is clear that our understanding of God and morality is seriously flawed. That is, if it is okay for God to harden a leader’s heart in order to more completely crush his people, kill innocent boys, and allow one person to be tortured so that billions of other people don’t get the punishment they deserve, then our understanding of morality or God is so inadequate as to be worthless. If, instead, the stories make no sense, this is likely because the Passover and Easter stories have symbolic value, but are not literally true.
If the Passover and Easter stories are merely symbolically valuable, then you might wonder why we should take them seriously. A lot of symbolic events have emotional meaning to us and are part of our identities, but it doesn’t follow that they should guide our daily actions or that people who master them (for example, rabbis and priests) have any expertise in moral issues such as marriage, divorce, in vitro fertilization, abortion, premarital sex, and so on. Like historians who are experts on Roman mythology, their symbolic and historical insight is valuable, but therein ends their expertise.
Also, one might wonder what else is symbolic. For example, one might wonder whether the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ instructions are merely shared symbols of an imagined past.
Still, the holidays are wonderful times, filled with family, warmth, and a lot of good food. One might wonder what’s to be gained by calling into question the symbolic stories at the center of these joyous holidays even if they make no sense. Perhaps we have to trade off truth and rationality for emotionally meaningful symbolism. Perhaps.