In 1990, as a senior in high school, I had an atheist friend ask me: “What, precisely, is it that Christians believe?” I will call her “Amy”, because that was her name. Amy had been raised as an atheist by two atheist parents and had never really known much about Christianity. I had been raised Protestant by two Christian parents, I had gone to Church and Sunday School every Sunday my whole life, I had gone to Christian youth group (Young Life, mostly) for years, and countless Christian summer camps. I felt like I had a pretty good understanding of late 20th-century Christian theology.
By that time, I was basically an apostate myself, so Amy’s question left me with an interesting exercise: how to simply and truthfully explain the essential Christian theology without proselytizing? I had spent a lot of time at that point literally soul-searching and questioning the truth of the Christian message, but until I explained it to an atheist friend without trying to convert her, I’d never reflected on the complete absurdity of it. This is roughly how that sounded:
First, you can’t really understand Christianity without understanding Judaism, or at least, what Christians think ancient Judaism was. Basically, Christians believe that because all humans are fundamentally flawed from birth (sinners), God has judged that the eternal essence of all humans (the soul) deserves to be tortured forever after the body dies. That said, God had a deal with a specific tribe of Bronze-age humans called the Israelites: if they gave him stuff, he would overlook the times they did something wrong, and then they wouldn’t have to burn in Hell forever. These offerings were called sacrifices. What kind of stuff? Mostly livestock, like a goat or something, although occasionally bread or wine were acceptable. The worse the sin, the more valuable the offering should be. And this works because, I dunno… God needs goats..?
This is the basic premise of ancient Judaism, as understood by Christians: if a you do something bad that God doesn’t like (i.e. a sin), then you have to make it up to him by giving him a burnt goat (actually, a male sheep; but substitutions permitted), and then he’ll forgive you, and it’ll all be okay. Otherwise, when you die, you will be tortured forever.
By the time the Iron Age rolled around, this system had gotten pretty unwieldy. Money had been invented, and specialization and such, and not everyone had a flock of goats or sheep to burn whenever they felt guilty. So eventually, God comes to Earth as some sort of spirit and deliberately impregnates a Jewish girl without her consent. (Snarky atheists refer to this as the “rape ghost”.) The child born from this union was a human, but was also the son of God, and furthermore was also God incarnate. (Which is confusing, but it doesn’t really need to make sense, because it’s “a mystery”.)
Because this child (Jesus) was actually a divine being, he was “perfect”, whatever that means. Since he was perfect, he was the most valuable offering that could ever be sacrificed. So the kid grows up and is a carpenter for a while, and then he spends a few years as a wandering Jewish preacher, until eventually God arranges for him to be executed by the Romans. And he dies.
Except not really: three days later, he come back to life, visits with some of his friends for a bit, and then flies off into the sky on a cloud.
So this is the crux: God created everything, including humans, and he will torture us forever if we ever do anything wrong, which we will always do because he made us broken. Except that this one time, God came down to Earth as a human, and then killed himself, in order to appease his own anger for every bad thing anyone ever did. Once that was done, he wouldn’t have to torture us (his beloved creations) forever, except that he didn’t really die, so it’s not clear how this was really a sacrifice. If you believe this story, then you get “credit” in God’s cosmic ledger, and after your body dies you get to live forever in some amazing other universe, instead of being tortured.
Amy, understandably, was, like, “WTF? That is weirder than I could have imagined.” I had newfound insight that Christian theology is fundamentally absurd.