Book Review: Rob Bell’s Love Wins: Part 2: Sacrifice and Archaic Religions

Near the beginning of his book Love Wins, Rob Bell asks a series of provocative questions about Christian faith and salvation.  He sets up the specific question I want to explore in this article by wondering if our salvation is dependent on something we do.  He then asks:

How is any of that grace?

How is that a gift?

How is that good news?

Isn’t that what Christians have always claimed set their religion apart—that it wasn’t, in the end, a religion at all—that you don’t have to do anything, because God has already done it through Jesus? (pg 11.)

This, I think, is the most important question in this debate about salvation.  Bell moves in the right theological direction when he asserts that God is love, but he misses a crucial anthropological point.  He comes close to making this point in Love Wins, and in his DVD The gods Aren’t Angry, when he discusses archaic religions.  His point about archaic religions is that humans experience a deep seated anxiety that needs an outlet.  That outlet was found through sacrifice.  Bell claims that

In the ancient world, people regularly sacrificed animals—bulls, goats, sheep, birds.  You raised or purchased an animal and then brought it to the temple and said the right words at the right time.  Then the animal was slaughtered, and its blood shed on an alter to show the gods that you were very sorry for any wrong you’d done and you were very grateful for the rain and crops and children and any other gifts you could think of that the gods had given you (123-124).”

Bell makes the very important point that in archaic religions you had to make a sacrifice to appease the gods.  When Bell claims that Christianity is not a “religion,” he means “religion” in this archaic sense.  He is correct that the Judeo-Christian tradition critiques archaic sacrificial religions.  But Bell misses a crucial point.  Archaic sacrifice indeed involved an individual’s anxiety concerning the gods, but what Bell doesn’t emphasize is the social benefits of archaic sacrifice.  Archaic sacrifice washed away the anxiety individuals felt in their relationship with the gods, but more significant was the role archaic sacrifice had in washing away the social anxiety humans felt in their relationship with one another.  As anthropologist Rene Girard has observed, humans naturally desire the same things.  He calls this mimetic (or imitative) desire.  If we can’t share the thing we both want, whether it is a water hole, a significant other, an Xbox 360, or a position of power or control, we are going to experience conflict and anxiety.  The outlet that archaic religions provided for conflict and anxiety was the ritualization of a spontaneous and unconscious mechanism for forming community.  Here’s how it worked: Communities in crisis united against a common enemy.  The innocence or guilt of that enemy didn’t matter.  All that mattered was that the group had a common enemy to unite against.   As Girard states in his book Sacrifice, “what desire for the same object can never accomplish—reconciliation of the adversaries—hatred for a common enemy does” (26).  The expulsion or murder of a common enemy washed away social conflicts and anxieties.  The community was “saved” and peace was found through this process, a process that Girard calls the sacrificial mechanism because of its unconscious nature. The mechanism was unconscious because the victimizers were always convinced of their victim’s guilt and, thus, always convinced of their own innocence.  This is the process that became ritualized as ancient sacrifice.

Don’t miss the true, but very unfortunate, fact that archaic sacrifice worked.  But the peace and social cohesion of uniting against a common enemy was always tenuous.  For mimetic desire always led to more conflicts and anxiety, which always led to more sacrificial victims.

Bell misses this crucial anthropological point.  It is crucial because this anthropological point has implications for any discussion about theology and salvation.  I will be discussing those implications in my third and final installment of this series on Love Wins.

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