This will be one of my more evangelical posts, with Anselmian atonement and all! Some of you will like it, some of you will hate it, and some will think it’s the same old evangelical spiel. But maybe you’ll get something out of it. You never know!
I just watched The Last Sin Eater, which was directed by Michael Landon, Jr., son of (you guessed it!) Michael Landon, Sr. It stars Academy Award winner Louise Fletcher and Golden Globe nominee Henry Thomas (Elliott from E.T.), and it’s based on a 1998 novel by Francine Rivers.
The movie is set in 1850’s Appalachia, which is populated by Welsh immigrants. The Welsh have a custom in which a designated “sin eater” (who’s drawn by lot) takes away the sins of people who die. The sin eater has to live a lonely life in a cave, without family and friends.
There’s a little girl named Cadi, who accidentally killed her little sister. Cadi fought with her sister over a doll and expressed her hatred, then she ran to a bridge that was over a raging river. When the sister tried to cross the bridge to approach Cadi, she fell into the water and died. Cadi’s mom blames her for the death, and so Cadi bears a lot of guilt.
Cadi goes to the sin eater to get rid of her sin, and he tells her that he only absolves dead people. But he finally agrees to help her, and he performs an atonement ritual. But she still feels guilty.
That’s when she meets Elliott from E.T. Elliott plays a preacher who’s just moved into the area. He tells Cadi that no mere man can remove her burden, since only the Lord Jesus Christ can do that. Cadi then feels relieved, and she runs with joy with her guardian angel/imaginary friend.
But the movie doesn’t stop there. After the resident thug kills Elliott, we get to see why the community resumed the old Irish “sin eater” custom when it moved to America. Basically, the thug’s father killed a group of innocent Native Americans, and he feared hell-fire and brimstone while he was on his deathbed. He thought it was high time to appoint a sin eater!
And we also learn that the thug has a deep dark secret (surprise! Must run in the family). He rigged the sin eater raffle so that the boyfriend of the woman he loved got stuck with the ill-desired role. The thug didn’t marry the woman, mind you, but he at least ensured that nobody else would.
At the end, Cadi tells the sin eater that he as a mere man cannot take away sin. People loaded him with a burden that he was never meant to bear.
The movie was really preachy, but it made me think about atonement. All sorts of religions have rituals in which someone bears the sins of the community, ensuring that divine favor continues to flow to it. In second millennium B.C.E. Babylon, the priest smote and humiliated the king during the New Year’s festival in an attempt to avert divine anger. Leviticus 16 has a ritual in which a goat dies for Israel’s sins, which are then placed on another goat, who carries them away into the desert.
On Jimmy Swaggart’s television program, there was a guest-host named Roy, a Native American who rarely said anything. But he once stepped out of character and told about his life as a Native American. His community was about to beat up a Native American for the sins of the clan, and Roy said that was unnecessary. “The Lord Jesus Christ died for my sins, so this guy doesn’t need to suffer on my account,” he glibly remarked.
And I think about the movie, The Lottery, which is based on the short story that gave school-kids nightmares. It’s about a small town’s annual lottery, which determined who would be stoned to death. One of the characters explained the rationale behind the lottery: it was designed to maintain peace and prosperity in the community. Apparently, she believed the town was better off when it appeased the gods with a human sacrifice.
But can a mere animal or human being atone for the sins of a group? According to the Book of Hebrews, the answer is no: Hebrews 10:4 says that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (NRSV). While the red heifer of the Old Testament could purify flesh, the blood of Christ is what cleanses the conscience from dead works so that people can serve the living God (Hebrews 9:13-14). The sin eater was unable to relieve Cadi of her burden, for only Christ could do that.
I was puzzled about why people were willing to abandon the sin eater custom so easily. After all, if they believed he was able to take away sin, wouldn’t that alleviate their feelings of guilt? But maybe they still had lingering doubts. “Are we sure this guy can remove our sins?,” they may have thought deep-down. As Anselm argued, only God can provide a sufficient sacrifice that can cleanse people of sin and guilt. Only he is completely righteous. He alone is superior to all human beings put together. He’s the only adequate substitute. And that’s why it’s important that Jesus as the God-man died for humanity.
Hebrews doesn’t explicitly say this, but it does maintain that Christ could take away sin in a way that the animal sacrifices could not. And it holds that he was the creator, even going so far as to apply to Christ a psalm that’s addressed to God. So maybe Hebrews moves in an Anselmian direction!