Updated: Mar 22, 2020
In Part 2 of the Perfection Paradox, we unspooled the first two assumptions that undergird the Perfection Paradox. The first assumption is that God is perfect. We discussed how this assumption is derived from the omni's of Greek philosophy:
The problem is that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle didn’t write the Bible. The authors of the Bible were predominately Hebrew and had a completely different way of thinking about God. The Hebrew authors never thought of God as being perfect. Rather, they saw God as containing (and being the cause of) both good and evil.
The second assumption is that God expects humans to be perfect. We examined the story of Adam and Eve, which is considered by Christians to be proof that God created humans to be perfect. However, the details of the Garden of Eden myth belie this interpretation. In order to remain perfect, Adam and Eve would have to know the difference between right and wrong, but because they were forbidden to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they were incapable of knowing the difference.
The paradox of this story points to the fact that God never expected Adam and Eve to be perfect, which means that God never expected you to be perfect. This is because life is a matter of contrast. You cannot know what is truly good unless you have experienced evil. This does not mean God wants us to sin. Rather, God expects we are going to make mistakes.
This brings us to the final assumption: God needed Jesus to be perfect because we could not meet God’s expectations. Buckle your seat belt. This will upend your world!
Christians often talk about Jesus as having lived a perfect life. Jesus was a man who knew no sin. Many Christians believe Jesus never uttered a bad word, performed a bad deed or conjured an impure thought. However, have you ever considered why Christians feel this perfection is necessary? Where do Christians get the idea that Jesus needed to live a perfect life?
The answer often revolves around the sacrificial system in the Old Testament. Whenever a Jewish person wanted to make restitution to God for having committed a sin, the law required the sacrifice of an animal. The language of these laws specifies that the sacrifice should be “without blemish.” For instance, in the opening of Leviticus, the law states:
If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd, you shall offer a male without blemish…You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you. - Leviticus 1:3-4 (NRSV)
Only when the priest sheds the blood of a perfect sacrifice can God grant forgiveness of sin. The reason ancient cultures believed there was a correlation between the shedding of blood and God granting forgiveness is complicated. However, their thinking had to do with their perception of the properties of blood. The ancients understood that blood contained the life force of an individual. They had no concept of cells or hemoglobin. All they knew was that, without blood, humans die.
In this way, the ancients viewed blood as being sacred to preserving life. However, they also believed that our actions, particularly our mistakes, could taint our life force. Thus, the ancients believed that the act of sacrifice had the effect of transferring the sins from our blood to the blood of the animal. Since the animal’s blood is pure, it can take our sin and purify our blood.
With this background, you can more easily understand why Christians claim that Jesus died for your sins. Since Christians believe that Jesus lived a perfect life, free from sin, Jesus is acting as the animal whose blood is pure. When Jesus died on the cross, his blood was shed, causing Jesus to become the ultimate and final sacrifice for our sins. The sins in your blood can now be transferred to Jesus’ blood and you can achieve permanent forgiveness. Christians argue that Jesus rendered the sacrificial system of the Old Testament unnecessary. With Jesus, we are no longer required to continually sacrifice animals to seek God’s forgiveness.
All of this raises some really important questions: Does it really make any sense that God would require a blood sacrifice in order to forgive humans for their sins? Why do we have to inflict terrible suffering on an animal to show how sorry we are for making a mistake? Can’t we simply ask God for forgiveness and can’t God grant that forgiveness without killing anything or anyone?
What many Christians will argue is that God is the one who created the sacrificial system. However, what those same Christians do not realize is that the sacrificial system is not unique to the Old Testament. Animal sacrifice was utilized by almost every ancient culture in the Middle East as a way of worshipping their god. In fact, the Jews were kind of late to the party. The earliest recorded animal sacrifices in Middle East date back to 4400 B.C. from the Badari culture of Upper Egypt. The Jewish laws from Leviticus were written down around 450 B.C.—that’s about 4000 years late to the party.
The other side to this equation that Christians don’t often discuss is what exactly does living a perfect life look like? In truth, it all depends on how you define perfection. Since Jesus was Jewish, many Christians assume perfection means following 613 laws found in the Old Testament flawlessly from the time Jesus was born until his death on the cross. You will hear Christian pastors claim that Jesus was the first and only person to ever achieve this feat.
However, what those same pastors often overlook is that, in Judaism, a person is not accountable for their sins until the age of 12 or 13 when they become bar or bat mitzvahed. Until that point, all the sins they commit are ascribed to their parents. So technically, according to traditional Judaism, Jesus could sin all he wanted until the age of 12 or 13 and then be considered perfect from that moment onward. That little fact complicates things, doesn’t it?
Another fact that undercuts the Christian argument that Jesus was the only perfect person to ever walk the earth is the erroneous assumption that following the 613 commandments was impossible. This is not true. There were many people who had the capacity to follow all of the commandments without breaking them. In fact, this is why a group of Jews known as the Pharisees created what were known as gezerahs. The word gezerah literally means separation and is best understood as preventative legislation. These are laws that help prevent you from breaking the law.
For instance, the Old Testament says that people are supposed to rest on the Sabbath (which is Saturday). In fact, if you perform work on the Sabbath, then according to Exodus 31:14, you are supposed to be put to death. Therefore, the Pharisees created a gezerah around the laws that are concerned with Sabbath observance.
Gezerah’s would say things like, “On the Sabbath, one may use a boatsman’s knot (a knot that could be untied with one hand), but not a permanent not because the use of two hands to untie a knot would constitute work.” The gezerah is like a fence that has been placed around the law. By observing the gezerah and staying behind the fence, then you know that you are not going to break God’s law. There were many Pharisees who were able to observe all the gezerahs without breaking them. They were called rabbis, teachers who knew and lived out the law so well that students of the Torah sought them out as their mentors.
Ironically, Jesus’ issue with the Pharisees is that they are too strict in their observance of the law. We see this in Matthew 23:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” - Matthew 23:23
In other words, the Pharisees are following the law to a T, but they are missing the spirit of what the law intended. Based on these verses, I think it is clear Jesus is unconcerned with adhering perfectly to the law. Rather than see the law as a black and white set of rules, the goal is to examine the intent behind the rules so as to create a more fair society reflective of God’s love.
Look, but Don’t Touch
At this juncture, I am sure there are some Christians who are thinking: “You’re wrong, Alex! What about thoughts? You can’t tell me that all those Pharisees were able to perfectly control their thoughts. They may have been able to live out the law perfectly, but they are certainly guilty of impure thoughts!” And you would be correct. They certainly are guilty of impure thoughts. However, there is nothing in 613 commandments about God regulating your thoughts.
The laws of the Old Testament tend to emphasize the notion that a sin is an action you perform. You cannot be considered guilty of breaking an Old Testament law unless you actually do something. For example, in the Old Testament, adultery for a man is the action of sleeping with another man’s wife. You have to do the deed to be guilty of the sin. In this way, you can think about sleeping with another man’s wife all you want and it would not be considered sinful.
Jesus, on the other hand, takes a different approach to sin:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” - Matthew 5:27-28
Jesus is challenging the common wisdom about what constitutes a sin. Jesus challenges this concept by asserting that contemplating an action is just as sinful as the action itself. The reasoning behind this understanding of sin is that our thoughts are what inspire our actions in the world. One does not simply commit adultery without thinking about the action beforehand. The deed is an actualization of the thought in the real world. If one’s thoughts were not focused on adultery, the act of adultery would be unlikely to occur.
This is not to say that Jesus is asserting through these verses that you are never allowed to think an impure thought. All he’s trying to tell us is there’s a causal relationship between thoughts and actions. Changing your thought patterns is essential to controlling your actions. If you’re an alcoholic and you’re constantly thinking about drinking, then preventing yourself from pouring that next glass of wine will be challenging. However, the more you can pull your thoughts away from alcohol, the more likely you are to transcend your addiction.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that Jesus never had a sinful thought. Indeed, let’s assume that the Christian assertion is true that Jesus was perfect from the time he was born until the day he died on the cross. This very assertion creates a paradox. Christians claim that the reason why God sent Jesus was so that God could finally understand what it was like to live a human life with all of our struggles, temptations and imperfections. You cannot have a perfect Jesus and, at the same time, claim that God sent Jesus in order to understand human existence.
Human existence is defined by the fact that humans need to make mistakes in order to learn right from wrong. If Jesus’ moral compass was so finely honed from his birth that he never experienced this important facet of human existence, then he could never truly claim to understand what it means to be human. Many Christians fail to realize that Jesus’ state of perfection creates a contradiction. One cannot claim that Jesus truly understands the human condition when he has never endured the most basic human experience of making a mistake.
This belief significantly diminishes the beauty of Jesus’ movement and message because it means that Jesus never truly understood what it meant to live like one of us. In my opinion, I think it makes no sense that God needed Jesus to live a perfect life because we were incapable of doing so. There is no expectation in Judaism that God expects any human to live a perfect life, because, as we discussed earlier, God is not perfect. Therefore, if perfection is not God’s goal for Jesus, then why should we be holding Jesus to the standard of perfection?
In my final post on this topic, we will take a look at how all of this talk of perfection has influenced the way Christians understand their faith and God’s expectations of their lives. As you will see, the outcome greatly skews the original message and purpose of the Christian faith creating a false narrative that completely devalues our potential as humans.
Nachum Amsel, The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1994), 205-208.
Isidore Singer and Cyrus Adler, The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Vol. 10 (London: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1901), 596.