What is a Sin-Eater?
Some years ago I watched a Christian film called The Last Sin-Eater. Previous to that, I don’t think I would have been familiar enough with this concept to have given any sort of answer to this question. In the movie, a young girl in 1850’s Appalachia is heart-broken by the death of her beloved grandmother. It is the custom of her community to come together at night for a ‘sin-eating’ funeral ceremony.
During the ceremony, the community gathers around the body of the deceased. They then turn their backs on the body. While their backs are turned, an individual known as a Sin-Eater goes to the body, eats some bread and drink that have been placed on the body by the community, and proclaims that the sins of the deceased have been transferred to him through this food (hence the term Sin-Eater).
The movie is not purely fictional. There seems to be some evidence that, though the details may have varied, this sort of sin-eating has been a real phenomenon in different parts of the world. Apparent overlap with biblical symbolism (bread & drink, transfer of sin/guilt) makes this an interesting concept for comparison with Christianity.
How does the idea of a sin-eater compare and contrast with the concept of what Jesus did for us? The movie is called The LAST Sin Eater because the young girl eventually meets a preacher that teaches her about Jesus. The message of the movie seems to be that Jesus has taken on our sins once and for all. No more sin-eaters are necessary. So the movie is really about atonement (how we are made ‘at-one-with’ God). We human beings know we are imperfect (to say it mildly). We know God is perfect. How can we find peace with God despite our sin?
The Christian answer is that we find peace with God through Jesus Christ. The much more complicated question is how exactly Jesus accomplishes this for us. There are many different theories of how the atonement works. One Old Testament picture of atonement is that of the scapegoat. On the Day of Atonement, the Israelite High Priest would lay his hands on a goat and symbolically transfer a year’s worth of the people’s sin onto the unblemished animal. They would then watch this goat (there were actually two goats used in the ceremony, but the other one was slaughtered) go off into the distance by itself (the Sin-Eater in the movie, too, lived in complete isolation from the rest of the community). The sins of the people were carried far away.
Exactly how the scapegoat ceremony foreshadowed Jesus’ death and our reconciliation with God is a matter of great debate (we could dig into that debate in future Q&A Friday’s!). What is perfectly clear, however, is that no mere human being needs to serve as a Scapegoat or Sin-Eater for us. Jesus brought an end to the sacrificial system. Through Jesus we may be reconciled to God. In Christ our sins are forgiven and death has lost its sting.