On the Atonement

The purpose of this essay is to create a general framework for how I think the atonement functions (in particular, why the death and resurrection of Jesus were necessary for the salvation of humanity) for humanity. My hope is to do so by taking into account Scripture, tradition, and experience while also maintaining an open dialogue with modern science, philosophy, and current understandings of psychology and anthropology.

At the outset, I should say that I am particularly fond of Girard’s “last scapegoat” theory, which we will address below. I will also take insights from Richard Beck’s The Slavery of Death in order to arrive at a fuller picture of what the atonement can and should mean to Christians (and hopefully the rest of the world), and how the atonement ought to directly affect our actions in this present age.

In order to understand the atonement, many evangelicals have been taught what is known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). The general universality of this particular atonement theory (and yes, it is only a theoretical understanding of atonement — not a test of orthodoxy or a “gospel issue”) is actually quite surprising, given that there have been other well thought out and orthodox atonement theories that take a different approach to understanding the need for Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (Ransom Captive, Christus Victor, Moral Influence, and so on). Most understand PSA to function as follows:

God created human beings in the imago dei, perfect and sinless, with the commission to “have dominion” over the earth and everything in it.

Humanity, at some specific point in history, acts contrary to the will of God.

This act of rebellion (or “sin”) creates an un-crossable chasm between humanity and God that humanity cannot cross on its own by “doing” or “being” good. Another way of saying this is that God’s purity/holiness cannot condone an act of rebellion against God’s will. By this act of rebellion, humanity has brought the wrath of God (via death and, even further, eternal torment) upon itself.

Since humanity cannot, on its own, cross the chasm created by its initial rebellion, God offers an initial method of cleansing and atonement for sin by way of blood sacrifice. The mechanics of this can be found in many Old Testament passages (Deuteronomy gives some very clear pictures of what this looked like in the life of ancient Israel).

However, animal sacrifice was not enough. This was a temporary solution to humanity’s problem. What was really necessary was a perfect, sinless human sacrifice to pay the price for humanity’s sin (remember, any sin is an absolute affront to the very nature and character of God). In order to solve this problem, God takes on human flesh is the form of Jesus of Nazareth, lives a sinless life, dies as an ultimate sacrifice on the cross, and receives upon himself the full wrath of God due to humanity.

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, humanity now needs only to accept and believe that Jesus was fully God and fully man, and that his death on the cross atoned (or paid the price) for the sins of humanity.

Doubtless, I have missed several steps here. It should also be said that this story of atonement I have laid out only gives a very particular view of the complete story of Scripture, of the world, and of redemption as a whole, even for those that affirm PSA. Focusing in on a particular doctrine forces me to ignore many historical aspects of the story of Israel and Jesus and the church.

That being said — I do not accept PSA as a viable option for understanding the atonement.

As Christians, I think our standard, rule, and measure for understanding any particular doctrine MUST start and end with Jesus (including the stories of Jesus we have from the Gospels, the creedal/theological statements the universal Church has accepted as true, and our real, present experience of Jesus, the person, today).

In my experience, most people have taken their ideas about what God must be and how God should act, and forced those ideas upon the person of Jesus. Instead, I think we ought to do the reverse. It is not that we impose our ideas about God (a nebulous term that can house virtually anything we want it to — wrath, anger, violence, justice, morality, love, and so forth) onto Jesus; it is that we must now necessarily define God by the person and character of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, “God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus. We have not always known what God is like — but now we do.

It is in this place that I must start with atonement. If Jesus is our starting point for a theology of the atonement, two things come to mind:

First, the fundamental Christian belief that God was not too pure, nor too holy to take on dirty, stinky, fragile, human flesh (this is the Incarnation). Sin, rebellion, and disobedience to moral “law” (or whatever else you want to call it) do not create some situation by which God requires separation, blood, death, and, ultimately, eternal conscious torment if humanity doesn’t comply with God’s standards. Rather, God is the kind of God (Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully man, reveals this completely) that steps into the cosmos, walks alongside us in our brokenness, and only desires complete restoration — for humanity and for the universe.

Second, death and dying are the natural states in which we find ourselves. Our very existence is bound to end in a “snuffing out of the light,” so to speak. We have no choice in the matter. In order to combat this, we neurotically give our lives over to (here’s some biblical language for you) “principalities and powers” that promise to give us fame or fortune or legacy — the “illusion of immortality” — in return. Our fear of death — or “slavery to death” as Richard Beck calls it — produces “sin” in our lives. In particular, we make idols out of our careers or organizations or ideologies, and our selfish and violent actions in relation to others are directly caused by our slavery to the fear of death.

So let me give you my take:

Humanity is bound. Specifically, we are bound by two distinct but overlapping principles/systems: rivalry, based on imitative desire, and (like I stated above) a “death/zombie drive” that forces us to pursue certainty, satisfaction, legacy, and the “illusion of immortality” in the face of our neurotic fear of death.

First, rivalry. This doesn’t necessarily sound all that “bad” initially. The word “rivalry” doesn’t quite awaken our senses like “original sin” or something that entails breaking a moral law of some sort. Nonetheless, I believe rivalry leads to one of the primary reasons why humans need an atonement or salvation.

Rivalry stems from an even more basic characteristic inside of humanity – namely, imitation (or mimesis). That humans are mimetic explains much in psychological development (i.e., humans often learn things as babies or children by imitation: talking, walking, and so on). Further, our mimetic nature also explains our basic desires. We learn exactly what we should want by observing what others want. Often, however, this desire leads to rivalry with that person. Because we desire what others have or what others want, our rivalry with that person tends to lead to conflict (especially when that person is someone we are close to – if that person is Bill Gates, for example, there are enough social and economic barriers to prevent any real rivalry between the two of us; if however, that person is a close family member or friend, the potential for rivalry in the relationship increases drastically).

When conflict goes unchecked, it can often lead to violence between the two individuals. Remember, one of the basic human characteristics is imitation. So when violence is perpetrated against us, our response is often retaliation (in the form of increased violence) because we imitate the rival party. In this way, conflict, violence, and retaliation are contagious. Conflict between two individuals grows, leading to rival families, tribes, and social religious groups. We have a tendency to become intensely violent, and these conflicts can lead to the utter breakdown of societies and social groups as a whole. To rid our social groups of the tension created by this “mimetic cycle,” humans use the scapegoating mechanism.

The scapegoating mechanism is a social method by which humans release conflict, violence, and tension onto an individual or minority group within a larger group or society. Usually, these individuals or minorities are easy targets; they may be physically weak, socially outcast, and so on. This person/minority, in the ancient world, would actually have been sacrificed or killed (as humanity progressed, this became less common; societies ritualized the scapegoating mechanism by banishment of an individual or sacrificing animals). The (un)surprising thing about the scapegoating mechanism is that, ultimately, it works. Once the individual or minority has been killed or banished, the larger group (or the mob) finds that its conflict/tension has (almost magically) disappeared. Thus, those in the larger group feel their actions are justified, because, in the mind of the group, the tension or conflict has disappeared. Therefore, the killed or banished person must have actually been guilty. This is the fundamental, broken reality (or “original sin”) of human beings and societies: we are bound to this never-ending cycle of mimetic violence:

Imitation leads to rivalry leads to conflict leads to violence leads to scapegoating. This cycle continues over and over again, and humans build their civilizations upon the bodies of the oppressed, the victimized, and the scapegoats.

Further, humans are bound by the fear of death. This is the “flip side” of the human coin, so to speak. Externally, we scapegoat to maintain social cohesion on a broad scale. Internally, our individual actions are driven by what Richard Beck calls a “neurotic anxiety” about the mortal predicament of humans. In the past (before modern or even pre-modern times), this fear of death (as a “basic” [not neurotic] anxiety) manifested itself in the human struggle for survival over and against others. The pursuit of survival and self-preservation drove humans to use violence against perceived threats, human or not.

Now, in modern times, humans (at least in first-world countries) don’t often face a daily struggle for our very survival. Nonetheless, our anxiety regarding death has not simply disappeared; instead it has transformed into an internal, “neurotic” anxiety. Our fear of death manifests itself by “feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, obsessions, perfectionism, ambitiousness, envy, narcissism, jealousy, rivalry, competitiveness, self-consciousness, guilt, and shame” (The Slavery of Death, 28).

In response to this neurotic anxiety, humans have the tendency to make decisions that are selfish, cruel, and power-seeking. Also, this anxiety drives us to give ourselves over to institutions (e.g., building a business from the ground up) or governments (e.g., serving the military) or religions/causes (evangelicalism or humanism or… you name it) to build a sort of legacy so that we can “remain” on earth after death. This is also the reason we — particularly in the West — are plagued with consumerism. We buy and collect and store items that give us a fleeting sense of satisfaction.

All of these are “defense mechanisms” (SD, 39) in response to the overwhelming anxiety we feel from the fear death.

Given these two basic, fundamental traits about humanity (our bondage to both the mimetic cycle [with the scapegoating mechanism] and neurotic anxiety in the face of death), we are in need of salvation from these oppressive, destructive systems. The only way humanity and civilizations have functioned – up until the time of Jesus – was founded both on the victimization of easily marginalized groups of people, and neurotic anxiety about death (selfishness, greed, anger, power-seeking, fear). These systems make us virtually incapable of real, self-emptying, sacrificial love and incapable of building civilizations without trampling down those who are “other” than us.

[Side note: From this point forward, I run the risk of distilling the story of Jesus and de-contextualizing it to the point of unrecognizable distortion. That is not my intention. The events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are beyond multi-faceted. While I sincerely believe in the particular narrative I am laying out, I am also aware that this does not tell the whole story; I am surely missing large sections of Israel’s history, the story of the Gospels and the early Church, and so on. Nonetheless, I believe the narrative I am attempting to weave is a broad, sweeping view of humanity’s brokenness, why humanity needs atonement, and how that atonement is obtained by and through Jesus of Nazareth.]

First, let’s take a look at how Jesus saves us from mimetic rivalry and the sacrificial scapegoating mechanism. Again, I cannot take into account every verse found in the Gospels, but we can look at a few in the hopes of pointing to the places where this view of atonement makes sense.

In Luke 11, when Jesus is conversing with a group of lawyers and religious teachers, he mentions that it is the “blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah” was “shed from the foundation of the world.” This is of extreme importance – particularly Jesus’ mention of Abel. The story of Cain and Abel is the story of the first murder (due to mimetic rivalry!). And after Cain kills Abel, what happens? Cain ventures out and begins the building of a civilization! The very first murder is not only the murder of a marginalized victim, but one that serves as the foundation for a society. And it is this for which Jesus condemns his present generation. They are just as guilty, he says, of the blood of the prophets (and victims!) — from Abel to Zechariah.

In John 8, Jesus is again talking to a group of teachers, and says “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.” Again, we can see the reference to desire as mimetic (imitative of how their “father” acts). Further, it is important to point out that another word for “satan” is “accuser” (i.e., the one that blames the victim for causing conflict, perhaps?) And again, we see the reference to being a murderer “from the beginning.” Girard explains this well: “The ‘origin’ or ‘beginning’ must have to do with the first human culture… they indicate that between the origin and the first collective murder there is a relation that is not accidental. The murder and the origin [of human civilization] are the same thing” (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 86). Here, Jesus claims that the religious leaders are actually followers/imitators of the accuser, guilty of the blaming and murdering of innocent victims for the function of their civilizations and cultures.

There are a multitude of other examples found in Jesus’ teachings, and even littered throughout the remainder of Scripture. The passages in Isaiah about the ‘suffering servant’ address the scapegoating mechanism. The entire book of Hebrews, with all its talk of blood sacrifice, can actually be seen to show Jesus’ sacrificial death as a move past the sacrificial system set out in the Old Testament. Acts, in its recording of the first sermons about Christ, addresses the mimetic cycle and how it has affected the people of Israel. The most poignant and important example, however, is found in the Passion narratives.

The stories in the Gospels about Jesus’ death (and resurrection) are especially unique in the long line of these stories in the history of humanity. Often, humans have used “myth” to obscure what actually happens when the scapegoating mechanism takes place. We can look at pieces of literature from Oedipus to old creation myths to find stories that affirm the “rightness” of our collective violence against individuals. These stories preserve the goodness of the crowd and the integrity of scapegoating in general.

The uniqueness of the Passion narratives, however, is that they clearly show a victim who was wrongly accused. The community that condemned Jesus was experiencing tremendous conflict and upheaval (Roman occupation being the primary driver here), and a mob formed that needed to vent its tension upon a singular individual; in this case, it is Jesus. The Gospels, however, tell this story in a unique way. Instead of hiding Jesus’ innocence, like all other myths about sacrifice do, they expose the guilt of the mob! Jesus’ death is very obviously unjust and should not have happened. However, by submitting himself fully to the scapegoating mechanism, Jesus directly exposes its inherent wrongness. God himself gives himself over to our evil, sinful, victimizing, oppressive cycle in order to expose it for what it is.

The mechanism’s temporary ability to dissolve conflict in a community can no longer function because God reveals it (first by the very act of submission to it, then through the Gospel narratives) as unjust. Further, Jesus is resurrected from the dead after submitting to death by scapegoating. And what are his first words? “Peace to you!” If anyone could have justly exacted vengeance for his death, it was Jesus, the sinless victim, the lamb who was slain. Nevertheless, after his resurrection, he only gives a word of forgiveness, a dispelling of fear for those who participated in his killing or turned their backs on him!

This is the good news: In the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus reveals our evil tendency for scapegoating and victimizing by submitting to our violence, and then he subverts our expectations further: he forgives us. By doing so, he is commanding the end of our victimization of others.

Now, the flip side of the human predicament.

Remember, Beck’s argument about the human predicament is that we are enslaved, or in bondage, to the fear of death. This neurotic fear produces sin in our lives – namely, we can trace much of our “individual” choices to sin back to our neurotic fear of death. When we participate in greed, violence, hatred, lust, laziness, gluttony, and so on, we do so as a response to our enslavement to the fear of death.

Our fear of death also causes us to give ourselves to institutions and “higher causes” in order to somehow preserve our own legacies, pursue “success,” and fight against our own mortality. These institutions and causes we give ourselves to can be thought of as “principalities and powers.” This is idolatry in its highest form.

Along with this, the neurotic anxiety we experience actually hinders humanity from expressing genuine love. We are, in some sense, incapable of love. Love requires sacrifice – sacrifice of our time, our energy, our desires, our (perceived) freedom. Love is an act of giving, but giving requires loss. The problem is that the anxious part of our selves doesn’t want to sacrifice anything. In the face of death, our pursuit is possession, mastery, legacy, and a (false) sense of immortality. These pursuits are often acquired by pushing ourselves to the “top” by way of aggression and manipulation. This leaves no room for genuine love and sacrifice, which is the command of Christ.

The Christus Victor theory is extremely helpful here. The basic view in Christus Victor is the assumption that humans, rather than choosing to sin and God requiring a sacrifice for rebellion, are in bondage to systems of sin. Many versions of this theory often use terms like “satan” and “demonic powers” to denote who or what is in control of these systems of sin and how they might function. Regardless of what we might call them, the premise in this view is that God, rather than requiring a type of punishment or sacrifice for our individual sins, comes into the world to break us free from bondage to systems we have little to no control over. God — in Jesus — submits himself to these “demonic” powers, and breaks them for us by dying to them and resurrecting again, which gives us a new path forward. (This is only a simplified version of the many ways we can understand Christus Victor. However, we can use this going forward to understand how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection save us from the anxiety brought on by our fear of death.)

So, how exactly does this work? How can we connect this view of anxiety over death that leads to sin and the work of Jesus that saves us from our enslavement and bondage to principalities and powers? I think we can do so in three distinct but connected ways:

1. First, the crucifixion provides a specific picture of genuine love from Jesus. Rather than fighting for his life, and running away from death at the hands of humanity, Jesus freely gives up his own life for the sake of others. The symbol of the cross is the ultimate symbol of love because it is a radical departure from the usual human response to fear and death, which is to protect that which we feel we possess and fight for our own lives.

Jesus’ willingness to submit to our violence and our systems of victimization is a picture of a life not bound by fear of death, but a life committed to self-expenditure and sacrifice in the name of love. Jesus does not cling to life for fear of losing it, but loses it freely for the sake of humanity. The only way forward, the only way to genuinely love and move past our anxiety about death is to follow the example of Christ. (To borrow some biblical language, we are to “take up our cross.” Further, we know what love is because Christ showed us what love is by laying down his life, so we ought to do the same [1 John 3:16].)

The imitative, mimetic nature of humanity overlaps with this theme here. Our inherent tendency to imitate doesn’t simply stop when we believe in and are saved by Christ’s death and resurrection. Rather, in the call to follow Christ, we are given someone new to imitate – not someone with whom we could become rivalrous, but the very person who shrugs off rivalry and the pursuit of self-preservation. Jesus serves humanity, sacrifices for humanity, empties himself for humanity. In calling us to “take up our cross,” Jesus says we ought to “follow” (or imitate) him in serving, sacrificing, and emptying.

2. Second, the bodily resurrection of Jesus gives hope to humanity, which pushes us past our fear of death to an embrace of life. By defeating death, and being what Paul calls the “firstfruits” of those who have died and will die, Jesus brings hope for a resurrection of humanity and the world. In the resurrection, we are promised a reconciled, revived, new world – one in which the kingdom of heaven reigns. If that is true, then enslavement to the fear of death (which breeds sinful, selfish action) should no longer reign in our lives. We can love freely because we have been given hope for the future of the world.

3. Third, in his life, Jesus models and teaches what this life given to love ought to look like. Parables, the Sermon on the Mount, and other teachings serve as direct ways of teaching us how to love and serve. Further, Jesus’ inclusiveness (both with religious leaders and with “outsiders”), whether in eating or spending time with or healing, gave us specific ways in which we could imitate him. He loved and served those who were victimized, oppressed, abused by the system; he also loved those who were in power – the victimizers, the oppressors, the abusers. It may not have looked the same, but it was an inclusive love that he modeled nonetheless. His identity was not rooted in selfishness and he did not seek to defend his place or possessions in this world. He freely gave because he did not experience enslavement to the fear of death.

Why is this important? Why should we care about how exactly Jesus’ death and resurrection are necessary for our salvation? Can’t we just go about believing Jesus died and rose again for a reason without wondering why it had to happen that way? Or perhaps we could chalk it up to God requiring sacrifice in his wrath toward sin and leave it at that?

I don’t think so.

Not long ago, I was participating in a Bible study with a group of people whom I love dearly. We were discussing the role Scripture ought to play in the life of the believer (i.e., How does it hold authority? Is it the word of God? In what way is it the word of God? What do we do with violence in the text?). Mine and my wife’s answers to these questions differed significantly from virtually everyone else in the group. At one point because of our answers to these questions, I was asked, “So do you have a problem with violence?” (as if this were a scandalous thing to ask!). My answer was, “Of course. I think violence in particular is anti-Christ.”

The conversation could not go much further. Before I could answer one question about a particular verse in the Old or New Testament (Revelation was brought up several times), I was given another verse to which I was expected to have an answer. Overall, I was not given enough time or space to give a reasoned, thoughtful, answer to either the Bible verses that seem to paint God as violent or why I thought we, as Christians, ought to denounce violence in general.

In general, I find the problem to be that, as humans, we don’t just desire justice via vengeful violence — we crave it. We honestly believe punitive action toward someone is the only way to gain justice for a wrong. What we don’t see is that we impute this desire onto God, believing God to work the same way. God couldn’t just simply forgive us without first calculating the cost of our wrong, rebellious actions. Someone needs to pay, we think. That is why we read the book of Revelation and assume Jesus is coming to smite his enemies and it’s all blood and vengeance and “wrath.” Surely, Jesus must give to the world its due. Then everything will be put right.

We then take that assumption about a book like Revelation (which I believe is wrong on multiple levels) and backtrack and say that God’s violent, genocidal commands in the Old Testament are justified because, well, that’s justice! God can do whatever God wants!

And then we radically re-interpret Jesus’ words in the Gospels, be they “Love your enemies” or “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye,’ but I tell you…” and assume those things didn’t quite mean that, or that God expects us to act that way but doesn’t act that way himself, or of course Jesus knew that’s not really a practical way to respond to violence, he was just using hyperbole. All because, deep down, we want vengeance and violence and “wrath” to be justified. Retaliatory vengeance is the only way we know how to make things right.

That’s the real scandal of grace. Grace and forgiveness do not demand a payment. On the cross, Jesus doesn’t say “Father, forgive them, but only if they do x, y, and z.” He simply looks at his accusers and murderers, and says “Father, forgive them.” When he comes back from the grave, he doesn’t bring a word of vengeance to his enemies (Jesus, of all people, would have been “justified” in doing so!), but says “Peace be with you!” And by doing so, he frees us to love unconditionally, forgive freely, and serve the world in a newly found absence of the fear of death.

Books and articles that I referenced in this essay:

“Some Thoughts on the Atonement” – James Alison (August 2004)

The Slavery of Death – Richard Beck

I See Satan Fall Like Lightning – Rene Girard

Saved from Sacrifice – S. Mark Heim

“Please Give Me Freedom from the Pursuit of Happiness” – Peter Rollins (October 2011): http://peterrollins.net/2011/10/please-give-me-freedom-from-the-pursuit-of-happiness/

Beauty Will Save the World – Brian Zahnd

“God is Like Jesus” – Brian Zahnd (August 2011): http://brianzahnd.com/2011/08/god-is-like-jesus-2/

Good Liberal Fashion

The crucifixion of Jesus is not to be understood simply in good liberal fashion as the sacrifice of a noble man, nor should we too quickly assign a cultic, priestly theory of atonement to the event. Rather, we might see in the crucifixion of Jesus the ultimate act of prophetic criticism in which Jesus announces the end of a world of death (the same announcement as that of Jeremiah) and takes that death into his own person. Therefore we say that the ultimate criticism is that God himself embraces the death that his people must die.

The Prophetic Imagination – Walter Brueggemann (91)

Michael Hardin on the Bible & Atonement

Around minute 53, Hardin makes a really great point. During the original Holy Week, Jesus is seen as the “lamb that takes away the sin of the world.” The thing is, in Judaism, Yom Kippur is seen as the day when the people received atonement for sin (not Passover), and there is never a time when a lamb takes away sin – it’s always two goats.

So in becoming the lamb that takes away the world’s sin, Jesus changes the way we view sacrifice, and how atonement works. Instead of a reinforcement of the old system of sacrifice, where we need a scapegoat to take our blame, Jesus takes on humanity’s violence and retribution, and offers peace and forgiveness in return.

This is the beauty of atonement in Christianity – not that God is vengeful and needs to settle the cosmic score (so to speak), but that God takes on our need for retributive violence and says “No more.”

Michael Hardin on the Bible & Atonement

Ancient Machinery of Unity

We are not reconciled with God and each other by a sacrifice of innocent suffering offered to God. We are reconciled with God because God at the cost of suffering rescued us from bondage to a practice of violent sacrifice that otherwise would keep us estranged, making us enemies of the God who stands with our victims. We are reconciled with each other because, at the cost of suffering, God offered us an alternative to our ancient machinery of unity. So long as our peace depends on scapegoats, we are never truly reconciled with each other. We only appear to be one community until the next crisis, at which point the short straw of exclusion will be drawn by some one or more of us.

S. Mark Heim – Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross

Galatians 3, Girard, and Radical Egalitarianism

Scripture after Girard

Currently, I’m reading through the New Testament chronologically, in the order they were written, with my wife. As I just finished reading S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, one of my goals in reading through the New Testament is to be intentional about the lenses through which I read. Girard’s Last Scapegoat theory of the atonement has become important enough (and life-changing enough) to me that I am attempting to use that particular understanding of the atonement to inform how I read Scripture.

(As a side note, this goes against some of the things I was taught in my undergraduate degree. I was always taught that we need to attempt to rid ourselves of all lenses, to try and see what was really being said “then and there” in order to apply it “here and now.” The reality is, I don’t think that’s ever possible. Instead, it seems better to me to attempt to be aware of the lenses through which I read and to be intentional about them.)

While I knew that this understanding of the atonement would radically change how I see many passages in Scripture, I honestly didn’t know how much this would happen. The interesting thing is, I’m seeing it everywhere. There seems to be a hidden subtext woven throughout Scripture about the inherent evils of scapegoating that I simply wasn’t aware of before. So as I’m reading through the NT, I imagine I’ll be blogging some about what I see in relation to this atonement theory.

Galatians 3

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a prime example of this hidden subtext. Obviously, not every word written directly relates to the atonement, but it’s also no secret that much of Paul’s theology revolves around the crucified and resurrected Christ.

In the letter to the church in Galatia, Paul seems to have a very specific purpose in mind: namely, the church has forgotten the gospel as presented by Paul in favor of a ‘gospel’ that requires them to follow the Law along with belief in Christ.

This premise brings us to the crux of the letter in chapter 3. It is Paul’s understanding of the atonement that drives his understanding of how ‘justification’ works, post-Crucifixion. Following his expression of frustration at the Galatians for abandoning his gospel in favor of a gospel under the Law, Paul writes, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (3:1).

Interestingly, Paul jumps from their abandonment of faith directly to Christ’s ‘public’ crucifixion.  It is Christ’s public, visible crucifixion that seems to be key in his understanding of what the gospel is. Christ, as the visible victim, bolsters the Church’s need to rely on faith alone and abandon the attempt at justification via the Law. In Girardian terms, it is the Law that provides the means for sacrificial scapegoating. The Law helps to create the taboos with which minorities can be blamed. Particularly, when conflict arises in a community, the Law provides a convenient method for determining who might be to blame for the community’s crisis.

Christ’s (visible) sacrifice, however, saves us from this mechanism. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (3:13). And because Christ’s death is visible as such (rather than transforming into a myth in order for us to be saved from the trauma of the sacrifice), that death breaks the system and allows us to see it as unjust.

It is through this visible sacrifice, this transcendence of the Law, that the Spirit is given. Paul says so in verse 5: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” This Spirit is what enables true unity among believers apart from the Law. Because the Law provided a basis for a community’s well-being, something needs to replace it when it is abolished via Christ’s sacrifice. There are certain rituals (the Eucharist and baptism) that help the community to do so, but it is by way of the Holy Spirit’s aid that the community can stay united, even in the face of conflict that arises.

Thus, due to the Spirit’s enabling and the baptism into Christ’s death, Paul can say, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). This unhinging of socio-economic, religious, and political boundaries is only possible in light of the visible sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

Saved from Sacrifice // Chapter 8

This post is part of a review series for S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. To start at the beginning, click here.

S. Mark Heim - Saved from Sacrifice
S. Mark Heim – Saved from Sacrifice

We will be skipping over chapters 6 & 7 in Heim’s book. While I found those chapters informative, I did not think they served to move the arguments around the main thrust of the book forward. (Chapter 6 discussed some of the post-apostolic period of the early Christian church and its relation to sacrifice; chapter 7 was basically a summary chapter and also discussed two mistakes commonly made regarding discussions about the cross within Christianity: namely, Christian Gnosticism and anti-Semitism.)

Chapter 8 is the first chapter in the third and final section of the book, which is entitled “In Remembrance of Me: The Cross that Keeps Faith Empty.” This entire section focuses on the aftermath of how the Church is meant to respond to this theology of the cross within its communal setting. Also, the next post in the series will be the final one, as we will combine chapters 9 & 10.

Heim suggests that when we view the cross in this new way that is being discussed, three sides of the cross present themselves (the first two were presented in earlier chapters): 1) “We see first the hidden, mythic practice of scapegoating that it reveals” (244). While the practice of sacrificial scapegoating began to be revealed in the Hebrew scriptures, the practice wasn’t fully revealed (according to Heim) until the Passion narratives. 2) “Second… we see that God opposes scapegoating sacrifice and has acted to vindicate the scapegoat” (ibid.). Normally, when scapegoating occurs, the deity of the tribe is found to be against the victim – the Gospels flip this system on its head. In showing the system for what it is, Jesus is the victim and is vindicated in full view. 3) “Third, we see the cross and resurrection as a charter for a new way of life” (ibid.). This final part is what we will review and discuss today.

The New Community

According to Heim, it is a good thing that sacrificial scapegoating is completely revealed as unjust in the Gospels. Unfortunately, it is not good enough. The truth of the matter is, scapegoating (despite its inherent evil) actually does solve a community’s problems. Regardless of its injustice, the victimization and sacrifice of an individual or a minority serves to stave off conflict within communities.

So, what happens when a community is forced to rid itself of the most effective way of removing conflict from its midst? Surely we are all aware that we are still broken people – our faith does not simply cause us to lose our differences of opinion. We require a new way of dispelling conflict without victimization (which we so easily fall into).

Heim gives three distinct ways in which the new community, in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, is able to dispel conflict. The first is the sending of the Holy Spirit. For the author, the Holy Spirit plays (at least) a dual role in the world. First, the Spirit is the paraclete (or advocate) for scapegoats and victims. This was a part of an earlier chapter that we did not discuss.

The second – and, I believe, more important – role is “the inspiration and nurture of a new kind of community” (227). Take Acts 4:27-33 for example. The beginning of the passage talks about the collective violence used against Christ, but moves on to discuss the Holy Spirit in the role of the community:

When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness. Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common… and great grace was upon them all.

It is in the context of the falling of the Holy Spirit that the believers are able to do things like hold their possessions in common and live in grace – ways of life which would easily dispel conflict. Heim says “The notable work of the Holy Spirit… is to bring unity across difference and division” (228), in much the same way Paul says there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. The normal socio-economic barriers of the day, though the labels remain, are broken through in light of the end of scapegoating.

Along with the work of the Holy Spirit, the two major practices of the early Church – baptism and communion – were meant to be unifying for the community and a way to replace sacrificial scapegoating.


While baptism existed before Jesus’ ministry (e.g., John the Baptist), baptism is one of the defining features of the early Christian community through the present day. This act is symbolic in several ways. In relation to scapegoating and baptism, Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3, 4).

In baptism, we are able to participate in Christ’s sacrifice in a non-sacrificial way. Baptism helps to replace scapegoating via identification with Jesus’ death as a scapegoat. God’s intent is to establish reconciliation in a way that entirely avoids scapegoating to mitigate conflict. To this, Heim writes, “We were not actually killed with Jesus, but we associate ourselves with that death through baptism, aligning ourselves with the victim, not the persecutors” (229).


Along with baptism, communion serves as the other method of dispelling conflict without sacrifice in the life of the Christian community. Heim states:

God exalts and vindicates the crucified one. But God does not do so through retribution and violence. Instead a new community forms, built around the memory of a justified sacrifice. They gather for their central act not to ritually perform another sacrifice but rather through the simplest of meals to recall the one whose death is to be final, to deliver us from further violence (231).

The purpose of communion, related to scapegoating, is twofold. First, it serves as an explicit reminder of the sacrifice made by Jesus. Just as the Passion narratives reveal the sacrificial system for what it is, so the elements in communion serve to remind the community that victims (and the Victim) are real, made of flesh and blood.

Second, and equally important, is the simple reality of sharing the table with the entire community in light of Christ’s antisacrificial death. “Just as bread and wine replace victims, so does this act become the unifying bond among the members, instead of a shared participation in killing… The crowd does not gather around a body; it gathers to become Christ’s body in the world, animated by the Holy Spirit of peace” (233).

Mimesis and Peace

Earlier in the book, Heim discusses the human tendency towards imitation (or mimesis). While it is quite common for our imitation of others to lead to rivalry, envy, and violence, it is also possible for mimesis to work in the opposite direction. In other words, we can either imitate the violence we see in others or we can imitate a model of peace for and in the community.

If one of Jesus’ primary missions was to help save us from redemptive violence (something that works, but shouldn’t happen), then Jesus must become our model for desire. Typically, our mimesis is directed towards the desires of an ‘other.’ This boils over into conflict and rivalry as we desire the object or person or profession (etc.) that we perceive our ‘model’ possesses or desires.

However, when Jesus becomes the model for the community, our mimetic desire is redeemed, because “what [Jesus] has designated as desirable is precisely nonrivalry itself. If people will contest with each other for this goal, they can attain it only be ceasing to contest with each other” (241).

This is the beauty of the new community, founded on an Event that in itself is against redemptive violence and sacrificial scapegoating. While these particular acts are generally a foundation for the structure of a community or society to survive amidst conflict, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection serve to reveal these founding acts as evil. Post-resurrection, the model of the Christ is used as a foundation of a new community that operates in direct contrast to the corrupt system of sacrificial scapegoating.

Why Monkeys Need “Salvation” – Part 7

This post is part of a series on Evolution, Original Sin, and the Atonement. To start at the beginning, click here.

Moving along regarding Original Sin!

Last time, we talked about the individual nature of Original Sin as the feeling of meaninglessness and loss of the (non-)thing that makes us whole and complete. Even further, this feeling of meaninglessness – if we don’t deal with it directly – drives us to pursue things that will fill the hole we feel. We are driven to pursue anything that will make us feel satisfied, like we have the answer. This includes ‘God’ – particularly the God-product so many churches sell.

This individual notion of sin manifests itself in a communal way.

Rene Girard
Rene Girard

Often, when we feel the sense of lack that I have described, we project unwarranted value onto an object that another person already has. In other words, we covet what the ‘other’ has because we believe the lie that the object they possess actually brings about real satisfaction in their lives (and will do the same in ours). René Girard calls this kind of desire ‘mimetic.’  Mimetic desire is inherently dangerous because, over and over again, it leads to rivalry and violence.

The problem, however, is that violence doesn’t just end with the individuals who are at conflict with each other. The violence that occurs from individual covetousness always leads to increasing levels of (often vengeful) violence. It doesn’t simply stop tit-for-tat (or “eye for an eye,” if you will). Let’s look at a common example (taken from Brian McDonald at Touchstone Magazine):

Picture two young children playing happily on their porch, a pile of toys beside them. The older child pulls a G.I. Joe from the pile and immediately, his younger brother cries out, “No, my toy!”, pushes him out of the way, and grabs it. The older child, who was not very interested in the toy when he picked it up, now conceives a passionate need for it and attempts to wrest it back. Soon a full fight ensues, with the toy forgotten and the two boys busy pummeling each other.

Read more: http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-040-i#ixzz2PFYIZJBa

The story above is familiar to us because it is natural to us. It is something we all do or have done. As we can see in the notion of individualistic sin, the desired object isn’t important. That object has no special power, no intrinsic worth. It is only our mimetic desire that causes us to want the object.

Further, as vengeful violence builds due to our desire for completeness and satisfaction, that violence does not stop with the individuals. Those individuals are part of families, tribes, and communities. Let’s say I try to take the object of desire that you possess, and you harm me physically for my actions. I’m not going to try and simply hurt you as badly as you hurt me – I’m going to try and hurt you more. Then, you not only want to cause damage to me, but to my family as well.My family, in turn, desires to inflict damage on the larger community your family might be a part of. This isn’t rocket science. This is something we understand because it is inherent to our very humanity.


So our very existence is bound to the feeling of lack, of meaningless, incompleteness, a sense that we are missing the thing that gives us satisfaction. To compensate for this, we project value onto objects we believe will make us whole, not lacking anything. When that object is possessed by someone else (and it always is), our desire becomes violent. We do whatever we need to do to obtain the object of desire. This violence never stops by itself. Violence always breeds more violence, until the communities in which we are part of destroy themselves from the inside, from the infectious disease we all carry.

However, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we see a move away from vengeance and violence and destructive desire. This is where our need for atonement comes from, and where we will turn next.

Saved from Sacrifice // Chapter 4

This post is part of a review series for S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. To start at the beginning, click here.

Chapter four is the first chapter in part II of the book. Part II focuses specifically on Jesus, his death, and how the Gospels not only continue in the trajectory of the Old Testament regarding sacrifice, but how they end up being the ultimate critique of the system. Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection can be seen as the climax in the story about sacrifice and God’s willingness to enter into our (violent) system in order to save us from it.

S. Mark Heim - Saved from Sacrifice
S. Mark Heim – Saved from Sacrifice

In chapter four, Heim specifically targets the passion narratives, which include the events leading up to Jesus’ death and the crucifixion itself. Jesus’ death and the way it is particularly unique because the Gospels seem to contradict themselves in the treatment of the whole affair. Heim says, “Jesus’ death saves the world, and it ought not happen… it is a good bad thing” (108).

The Gospels are actually pretty clear about this, and anyone who has read them can attest to this fact. For example, Jesus says, The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have  been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21). How can Jesus rebuke the chain of events leading up to his death if he is completely aware that it is something that must be done “according to the will of God”? Heim contends that this contradiction found in the Gospels doesn’t make sense in the penal substitutionary understanding of atonement. However, it does make sense in light of Girard’s scapegoating theory of sacrifice. If scapegoating is an evil that still brings about reconciliation in the community, it is quite plausible for God to enter into this system, both using it and revealing it for what it really is – thus turning the system on its head.

From Old to New

As Heim moves from the Old Testament to the New, he shows how the Old Testament was simply the first step in revealing the victimization found in scapegoating and its inability to ultimately reconcile a community – even if it may do so for a period of time. The passion narratives in the Gospels, however, take on scapegoating in full force. While other ancient ways of scapegoating utilized myth in order to shield its participants from the violent nature of their actions (e.g., glossing over super-violent elements, making the victim a divine being, using intense euphemism, etc.) the Gospels are notably anti-myth. That is, they display all of the common characteristics found within scapegoating rituals, but do so from the victim’s perspective, so that sacrifice of an innocent victim is shown as truly evil. In this long quote, Heim explains:

[Girard] found [in the Gospels] all the classic elements that characterize sacrificial myths: the crowd coalescing against an individual, the charges of the greatest crimes and impurities, the scapegoating violence, the desire for social peace. But he was startled to recognize that the reality of what was happening was fully explicit, not hidden… This time it was told from the point of view of the victim, who was unmistakably visible as unjustly accused and wrongly killed (110-111, emphasis mine).

This is the point, the climax to the story of scapegoating. It is the ultimate revelation, the splitting of the veil, the light piercing the darkness.

Some of the critics of the Gospels and the Christian faith will focus on the particular brutality of the Gospels and the death of Jesus, noting how violent they are – particularly because the most violent part of the story is the central focal point for many of those in the Christian faith. It seems as if Christians venerate a particularly brutal, tribal, violent God. The fact is, however, if it didn’t show its violence outright, it would do no more than the other myths did for scapegoating. The Gospels, in their unwavering gaze upon the violence done to the God-man, do what none of the other myths could have done. They are the ultimate deconstruction of the violent systems that we uphold.

Furthermore, Heim argues that the fact that our culture can look at the Gospels and point out the violence within is actually a testament to their effectiveness! Our culture, our world, has been forever changed by the demythologization of scapegoating found in the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. “We would not accuse the Gospels of victimization if we had not already been converted by them… We would not look for scapegoated victims in every corner if the magnifying glass of the cross had not become second nature for us” (113).


Coincidentally, Jesus’ resurrection, in Heim’s view is basically the final nail in the coffin of scapegoating sacrifice. In the mythological accounts of sacrifice, the victim is intentionally silenced, made invisible, and fades into oblivion for the sake of the community’s reconciliation. The resurrection of Jesus does not allow this to happen. Heim states:

As the story of the crucifixion maintains clarity about the forces that lead to Jesus’ death, so the resurrection of Jesus decisively explodes an possibility of mythologizing it. This victim does not stay sacrificed. The story of his death will not be given over to mythical memory, for the persecuted one will return to give his own witness (127).

The end of Mark’s Gospel is telling in this regard. After the three women find that the tomb is empty, Mark 16:8 says, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Why the fear? Why wouldn’t they be elated that their teacher was no longer dead, but alive? Their terror at the thought of Jesus’ coming back only makes sense if we understand sacrifice in the way it actually works.

Jesus’ death was meant to bring about reconciliation for a community under pressure and conflict, a community looking for an innocent scapegoat. Jesus should have been (and was!) that victim. His return, however, presents a monumental problem. The peace that the community hoped to achieve by Jesus’ death could not hold if the victim returned. “If Jesus really was coming back, with divine support, no one could comfortably look forward to that meeting, knowing what their own roles had been in relation to the crucifixion” (ibid.).

In fact, Jesus’ resurrection brings about the opposite of what his death was intended to do. Instead of the unity normally created by the community’s sacrifice, the resurrection of the Christ brings about division. This is not a vengeful kind of division, as if the those close to the victim seek retribution; instead, the new kind of community created is one that “rejects both the sacrificial violence that killed Christ and the contagion of revenge that the sacrificial system existed to contain” (128).

Christ’s death and resurrection, in this view, are not meant to be taken as an affirmation of the system of sacrifice, as if all of the sacrifice before was just in place until God came along and gave the right kind of blood once and for all. Instead, Christ’s death and resurrection are the ultimate critiques of a failed system. Christ, the God-man, is revealed as the ultimate victim; he enters into the system – not to affirm it, but to destroy it.