In my time discussing apologetics, I’ve encountered two types of atheists:
1. Those who don’t, at the end of the day, believe religious claims, but consider theism a respectable position worthy of serious consideration.
2. Those who know almost nothing about theism outside of wild distortions and straw men.
One such distortion, that comes up semi-regularly, is the patently false claim that Christianity holds that “God sacrificed himself to himself”. Usually, it is followed with intimations that God threatens people with Hell, as well as the insistence that this is the basis of Christianity.
With all due respect to those who believe such claims, this is borne of a deep ignorance of the facts.
Personally, I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with being ignorant, so long as one is willing to learn. Its entirely possible that the second sort of atheist could become the first sort simply by availing his or her self of the writings of actual theologians.
Those that do will find that, according to Christian theology, Christ was indeed a sacrifice, but not remotely “to himself”. That is, he was not a ritual sacrifice, but rather a sacrifice in the same sense that a soldier might sacrifice his life in battle.
Such a person would not be sacrificing “to” something, but rather “for” something (such as freedom or some other cause).
Christ, according to Christians, sacrificed himself to bridge the infinite gap between a perfect God and a finite, fallible species. This wasn’t remotely because God, personally, wanted a sacrifice, it was because (among other things) the distance was so great.
Bridging such a gap, and forgiving great wrongs, is always extraordinarily painful. It is always an act of sacrifice.
It is also well within mainline Christian teachings that Christ died not merely to suffer for us, but to suffer with us. That is part of bridging the gap in any relationship, after all. I’ve even read essays from black Christians who claim that they love Christ not so much because he died for them, but because he was, in effect, lynched. He knew what it was like to suffer under an unjust socio-political system.
Much, much more could be said, but it already seems obvious enough that the common internet meme is far too glib.
It is less so, however, than the even more common claim about threats of Hell. I can’t imagine that the idea that Christianity is a religion of forgiveness is an obscure fact. Yet I run across people who confidently claim that the threat of Hell is the motivation for good behavior to be found in Christianity.
But, as I’ve already written about the actual motivator, I’ll simply respond by wondering how someone who doesn’t seem even to know that Christianity offers forgiveness can claim to know anything at all substantial about the religion, let alone seen through it.
These kinds of claims are no part of what Christian theologians have claimed. Much less are they the basis of the religion. One can believe, or disbelieve. But, what one can’t do, if one is to be rational, is claim that these silly straw men have anything to do with Christianity.