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Gospel Disproof #52: Christians and cannibals

One of the early accusations against Christians was that they were cannibals who practiced ritual human sacrifice and then devoured their victims in secret rites hidden away among the catacombs. If you’re familiar with the Christian sacrament of communion and its meaning, it’s easy to see how such a rumor could get started. The cup that Christians drink is a sharing in the blood of Jesus, and those who eat the bread are eating his body as well, at least according to the liturgy. The language and terminology they use is certainly the vocabulary of cannibals and vampires, and Christians attach great importance and reverence to that vocabulary. Small wonder, then, that some people took them for wanna-be cannibals and vampires.

Here’s the thing, though. If we think about it, the rumors aren’t that far off. In modern Catholic theology, a metaphysical switcheroo takes place which causes the bread and wine to become the actual body and blood of Jesus (cleverly “disguised” to maintain the appearance of still being bread and wine). In other words, if we take transubstantiation at its word, Christians are literally committing cannibalism every time they take communion. That’s rather the whole point of the doctrine of transubstantiation—that the bread is literally human flesh and the wine is literally human blood, and believers are eating and drinking the actual body and actual blood.

Nor are Protestants much better off for calling communion a merely spiritual or symbolic cannibalism. Even though the bread and wine aren’t literally human meat and blood, the focus and meaning of the ritual is still centered on perceiving the bread and cup as Jesus’ body and blood. The intent is still there, and the significance is still cannibalistic, and it has to be judged on those terms. Suppose someone handed out bread sticks, and had the congregation suck on them as a kind of ritual, spiritual fellatio. Would Christians be ok with that on the grounds that the bread stick wasn’t literally Jesus’ penis? “That’s completely different—extramarital oral sex is a sin!” Oh, and cannibalism isn’t?

The problem here is that, when men make up a story, it can sound reasonably self-consistent up to a point, but then sooner or later there’s an inconsistency that can’t be resolved. It’s easy to see how ritual, possibly-symbolic cannibalism could inadvertently end up as the centerpiece of Christian worship. After all, Jesus was supposed to be the Lamb of God, and it had long been established that after you sacrifice the Passover lamb, you roasted it and ate its flesh. There’s a certain natural continuity from that to the idea that Jesus is the (human) sacrifice, and therefore ought to be eaten. The only problem is that both human sacrifice and cannibalism are wrong! You start with a story that seems plausible at the beginning, and follow it to its logical conclusion, and end up with something that’s not just absurd, but downright nasty.

That’s the way it goes with stories that men make up. They’re not drawn from the real world, so they’re not consistent with the real world, or even with themselves. That’s why it’s easier to just tell the truth: the inconsistencies aren’t there, and so you don’t wind up having to explain exactly why and how you made cannibalism and human sacrifice the heart and foundation of your religion.