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.
This post is the final post in a review series for S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. To start at the beginning, click here.
I have greatly enjoyed reviewing S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. The book’s thesis has honestly been paradigm-shifting for me, particularly in my view of God, orthodox Christianity, and my understanding of the atonement. Since finishing it, I have come to read Scripture in a completely different light, and a lot of things that didn’t make sense before I read the book began to click for me afterwards.
In the final two chapters in the book Heim focuses on Revelation/apocalypse and its relation to the Last Scapegoat theory of the atonement, and then sums up the premise in a final chapter.
Heim opens up the chapter on Revelation with a verse from Hebrews: “For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26-27).
This particular quote reveals Heim’s understanding of Revelation and apocalypse in the Christian tradition in relation to scapegoating sacrifice.
The beauty of this scapegoating theory – that sacrifice is unhinged by the Crucifixion and Resurrection – is also a curse. While sacrifice is an evil that should be abolished, the problem lies in the fact that sacrifice works. I.e., our societies are able to function because sacrificial scapegoating serves as a solution to conflict in the community. But what happens when the sacrificial system is dismantled by Jesus’ sacrifice, yet the society does not create a new path of reconciliation? Heim says, “Our societies can hardly live without the old myths of sacrifice and their updated versions, yet our awareness of their victimization of the innocent drains their capacity to reestablish peace among us” (263).
It is this dissonance (humans attempt to use scapegoating, despite the knowledge of its inherent evil) that helps bring about apocalypse because the previous ‘release valve’ becomes increasingly ineffective. In other words, conflict continues to build within a community without the possibility of true reconciliation in some way. “The social world implodes of its own weight” (264). With this misunderstanding of Jesus’ sacrifice, the world falls apart in a similar manner to the type of apocalypse we see in the Gospels.
Another way apocalypse occurs is via a second misunderstanding of the abolishing of scapegoating violence. Instead of simply recognizing the evils of scapegoating but offering no solution, victimization is recognized, but the injustice done to scapegoats “becomes a charter for an unrestrained tide of righteous wrath against their oppressors” (ibid.). Much like some of the extreme liberation theologies of the twentieth century or the kind of Marxism or communism that wages war on behalf of the victimized class, this misunderstanding leads to the kind of apocalypse we see in the final battles of Revelation.
Heim warns us here that, while the unveiling of the myth of ‘good’ sacrifice can be a good thing, it can also bring humanity to an even more violent place. Heim (and Christ!) implores us to take a hard look at how we respond to the Christ Event and live in response to it:
Where is the legacy of the cross in all this? In an empirical sense it is both a wrench in the works of sacrifice and a spotlight on the practice of scapegoating. This can have negative effects, making sacrifice more bloody when we persist in it, or turning our awareness of victims into an absolute conflict with those we identify as their persecutors. But the most basic saving social effect of the cross is to disrupt all our unanimities, sacrificial or apocalyptic (290).
Heim’s closing chapter is virtually a summary of everything discussed before, so I won’t go into too much detail here.
The point of his writing seems to hinge on two major issues. First, based on what Rene Girard has to say about culture, myth, and sacrifice, it is imperative that we attempt to understand the function of sacrifice in our societies and how this relates to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. If we misunderstand sacrifice (e.g., that perhaps it is ‘good’ or God-ordained), then we miss the point of the cross, which is to break the system of sacrifice by revealing Christ as a victim. Second, and related to the first point, when we misunderstand sacrifice and what Jesus’ death and physical resurrection mean, our atonement theologies can all-too-quickly serve as a foundation for violence and scapegoating by other means or as a way of passively accepting meaningless suffering.
Instead, we need to understand the following:
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 (320).
This post is part of a review series for S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. To start at the beginning, click here.
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.
This post is part of a review series for S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. To start at the beginning, click here.
While Chapter 4 dealt with the passion narratives in light of Girard’s scapegoating theory, chapter 5 (“Sacrifice to End Sacrifice”) moves on to discuss how the early Christians understood Jesus’ death and the sacrificial system post-Resurrection.
Let’s jump right in, shall we?
One of the major portions from Acts that Heim deals with is Stephen’s sermon in front of the mob that is about to stone him (Acts 7:1-53). Interestingly, though we typically view Stephen’s sermon as a ‘salvation’ message before his death, Jesus is only mentioned once, and just barely. His sermon is split into four sections:
- First he speaks about Abraham, which seems like it would be a common starting place for any Jew giving something like a sermon. He talks about Abraham’s faith and willingness to leave his home for a place God would show him
- Next, Stephen talks about Joseph, whose brothers gang up on him and, as a result, he ends up in Egypt, helps stop a famine, and shows mercy to his brothers.
- The third section of Stephen’s sermon centers on Moses and is the longest portion. While the Mt. Sinai episode receives little attention, a large part of the Moses section focuses on the account of Moses’ murder of an Egyptian to protect his fellow Israelites. Unfortunately, he is even further ostracized from his community rather than drawn near to them. Heim says, “One way ending conflict has been tried and found wanting” (136). Following this, Stephen talks about how God required no sacrifice while the Israelites were in the wilderness, and Stephen uses some of the words of Amos to bolster his claim:”I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them… But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (5:21-24).
- Following his quoting from Amos, Stephen talks about the tabernacle as God’s dwelling place in the wilderness and then Solomon’s temple. But then he turns this around and states, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands,” and proceeds to rebuke his hearers, saying they oppose the Holy Spirit by persecuting the ones who foretold the “Righteous One” and then Jesus himself.
Interestingly, as I stated above, Stephen says little about Jesus, but draws a (slightly irregular) line between the figures in his story and Jesus. Further, the line Stephen draws from Abraham, Joseph, and Moses to Christ is one of the sacrificial victim. Israel itself has been enslaved and oppressed, as Abraham (as a “resident alien”) and Joseph (as one sold into slavery). Then Moses’ story speaks to this theme even further, first by him unsuccessfully using violence to help reconcile a situation, and then by himself being pushed aside by the Israelite community in favor of using a sacrificial victim (via the temple). Finally, these previous violent acts have been continued in the killing of the “Righteous One.”
Stephen’s story in Acts segues into Saul/Paul’s conversion story, which also contains some of the elements of scapegoating. Prior to conversion, Saul’s primary focus is persecuting and killing the Jewish Christian communities that are cropping up after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Heim explains,
“Christians represent a threat of dissolution in the community, a crisis, and Paul’s reaction is to isolate and destroy them in order to purify the people and to maintain unity. Once he becomes a Christian, Paul’s hallmark project is to build a community with non-Jews, across all the differing practices that the same Paul would have regarded before as impurities that destroy unity and identity” (140).
Both this encounter with Christ and Paul’s tenacity in the inclusion of the Gentiles greatly affect his later writings that are included in the NT. One of the major passages often used in reference to discuss Christ’s atoning death is Romans 3:10-26 (before you go on, I suggest reading it). In the first half of this section, Paul lays down the claim that all people, both Jewish and Gentile are under the power of sin. In doing so, he uses several quotations from Psalms and Isaiah. Three of the Psalms are particularly scapegoating Psalms, as we discussed here, three of them discuss universal sin in general, and the Isaiah passage quoted references the very nature of the universal perversity in mankind. While Paul addresses the general, universal sin that is part of humanity (i.e., everyone has done something ‘wrong’), he also specifically references a particular sin that everyone has committed – namely, scapegoating persecution.
Continuing in this line of thought, Heim addresses the Law in Paul’s writings. For Heim, through the lens of sacrificial violence, the Law is not the problem, but the way it is used to affirm victimization is. While the Law may have originally been meant to help the community avoid violence (e.g., do not steal, do not commit murder, do not covet, etc.), the Law can be, and was, used improperly; that is, it was wrongly used to justify the murder of innocent victims in order to maintain the community’s peace. Heim also notes: “The fact that the law appealed to in the process is an authentic divine commandment does not mean that the process [i.e., victimization/scapegoating] itself is valid” (143).
That God enters into the human sacrificial sphere does not mean that God endorses or approves of this particular method. Rather, he enters into the system because this is precisely where humanity’s sin universally manifests itself. Heim points out that even the text says as much, as “the effectiveness of the act lies not in the blood or the violence; it relates to faith” (ibid.). In other words, it is not the blood itself that saves us from God’s wrath, but our faith that God has entered into our brokenness in order to repair it.
The Resurrection of Jesus is the final act of redemption in God’s saving work. For by Resurrection, Jesus is not only acquitted and proved not guilty of the charges against him – those who carried out the violence against him are made innocent as well. Heim says, “They can be declared not guilty of Jesus’ death by the fact that Jesus is not dead. The prosecution cannot proceed in this capital case without a dead body, and the tomb is empty” (144). The catch, however, is that those accused (e.g., all of us) must affirm the resurrection, which also means affirming our guilt. We must affirm that our sin killed him before we can also affirm that he rose from the dead. Our denial that Christ rose from the dead is akin to refusing to have a witness testify in our favor (which is why Paul says Jesus was “handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” [Rom. 4:25]).
Finally, Heim addresses the book of Hebrews, which, to most of us, looks to be the most affirming text regarding penal substitution. Just take a look at Hebrews 9:11-14, for example. Killing animals seems to be pretty beneficial, but Christ’s death is infinitely more beneficial. A closer look, however, shows that the writer of Hebrews is not necessarily affirming the system of sacrifice so much as turning it on its head.
Later in chapter 9 of Hebrews, the author indicates that Christ’s sacrifice is not the same as the kind of sacrifice done before. If it were, then Christ would have had to suffer “again and again since the foundation of the world” (Heb. 9:26). Instead, Christ’s sacrifice was meant to stop the cycle of sacrifice. No longer do sacrifices offer peace to a community, and Hebrews makes this clear. In a similar vein, in chapter 12, the writer says, “[Jesus’] sprinkled blood… speaks a better blood than the blood of Abel.” To which Heim says, “Abel’s blood called for vengeance, and sparked the cycles of retaliation that we have contained only with more blood, the blood of sacrifice” (159).
Christ’s sacrifice was not meant to be an affirmation of sacrificial practice, but the sacrifice to end sacrifice.
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.
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.
Our last post on S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice focused on the four major ways the atonement has been understood by (western) Christians since the crucifixion itself. It is true that there have been more than simply four ways of understanding the atonement, but most (or all) of them fall within one of the four major categories (I found this diagram particularly helpful). Also, the introduction of the book ended with a basic understanding of the atonement from the Girardian point of view. If you missed it, click here.
Today’s review portion will focus on chapters 1 & 2, and chapter 2 is the first chapter in part I (“Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World”) of Saved from Sacrifice.
Chapter 1 – Atonement on Trial
Chapter 1 begins with a more in-depth summary of penal substitution, particularly because – from my understanding – penal substitution and Girard’s mimetic/non-sacrificial atonement cannot co-exist. The trajectory of the book seems to indicate that, from the author’s viewpoint, penal substitution is no longer viable, and this newer theory can replace it.
Penal substitution, as Heim says, can be summarized as follows: “The cross is a punishment for sin (hence penal). The punishment is applied not to a deserving guilty humanity (us) but to the innocent, divine Jesus (hence substitutionary). And the result is forgiveness, acceptance, and reconciliation between God and humanity (atonement)” (21).
Our inherent sinfulness and disobedience to God, from the moment we are born, means that we are always-already deserving of punishment, damned from the get-go. Not only that, but the punishment we deserve for such disobedience can never be repaid by humans. Thus, Jesus (God-in-the-flesh) comes to bridge the gap that exists between humanity and the divine. He is able to do so because he is actually human (i.e., his humanity allows him to take the punishment in humanity’s place) and he is completely innocent, serving as a sort of unblemished sacrifice to the Father. The problem, however, is that multiple indictments exist against this particular atonement theory:
- Penal substitution always trades in the language of sacrifice. – Most of us in the western world are both unfamiliar and uncomfortable with “sacrifice language,” and even sacrifice in general. We are far removed from the practice of sacrifice as some kind of “saving act.” It would have made sense for the NT writers to talk about Jesus’ death in terms of sacrifice, but it means little to us today. Often, Heim says we “[conjure] up some idea of sacrifice from this dim prior history, one that we can half-believe in long enough to attribute meaning to Christ’s death” (23).
- The cross has been a keystone of Christian anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. – This is particularly true when we our atonement theology requires a divine victim for our salvation. Thinking of the crucifixion in this manner has historically led (and can lead) to the demonization of Jews.
- Our knowledge of world religions and mythology puts Jesus’ death in an unavoidably comparative context. – We cannot deny that myths about dying and rising gods existed across human cultures. The gospels may have claimed Jesus’ death and resurrection was unique, but in what way? Penal substitution fails to answer this question, and (some would argue) may attempt to get some of the same morals across, but does so in a much more crude, violent manner.
- Traditional interpretations of the crucifixion are criticized for moral failings. – Personally, this is a common criticism of penal substitution I’ve heard from outside of the evangelical community. Many fail to understand the necessity of the death of God’s son just so God’s ‘justice’ can be fulfilled. Why must this be the case? The notion that God chose this particular way to reconcile Godself to humanity simply seems unnecessarily violent. And then, of course, if God had to do it this way, God is subservient to some ‘higher’ form justice. Either answer leaves some gaping holes.
- (Many people say that) Christian ideas of atonement foster toxic psychological and social effects. – In short, Heim asks, “By making the cross God’s recipe for salvation, do we validate violence as a divine way of doing business?” (25). As we said before about the historical tendency of the cross to bring about anti-Semitism, an unhealthily violent view of the cross can also validate the use of (or even unnecessary submission to) violence on earth to bring about God’s ‘will.’
At this point, however, Heim makes a separate point by citing some anecdotes of human responses to the message of the crucifixion (even of the penal substitution kind) that do not respond violently. Suffice it to say that the author does not lay all of his evidence on the charge of violence against penal substitution. The fact of the matter is, humanity’s improper response to the crucifixion in any manner does not necessarily negate a particular theory’s truthfulness outright.
Chapter 2 – The Cross No One Sees: Invisible Scapegoats
As I stated earlier, this chapter is the first chapter in part I of Saved from Sacrifice. This section focuses particularly on ancient sacrifice in chapter 2 and then the Hebrew sacrificial system in Judaism before the time of Christ. Heim opens up the chapter with this:
If the work of the cross is a universal saving act, there must be something universally wrong in human life that is directly involved in Jesus’ death. But it must not be universally apparent, otherwise the crucifixion would be obvious good news rather than foolishness and a stumbling block (38).
Being that the New Testament is bathed with the language of ‘sacrifice’ in reference to Jesus’ death, this means we need to take a hard look at (1) the meaning of ‘sacrifice’ itself across all human cultures, especially since it is common factor in all human cultures, and (2) what it is that makes Christianity unique in the history of sacrifice.
In the first instance, as Heim stated in chapter 1, sacrifice is completely foreign to modern humans, and particularly westerners. While many theories abound as to why cultures participated in sacrifice, the fact remains that we know that it doesn’t actually do anything now. Unfortunately for us, however, “The biblical texts… are increasingly perplexing to us precisely because of their literal attention to sacrificial practices and their serious engagement with issues of sacrificial causality” (40).
Once again, Girard comes into the picture to supply us with a theory (which he calls Mimetic Theory), not only about why sacrifice actually works, but also makes sense of the biblical texts about sacrifice (something Heim talks about in the next chapter) – and, eventually, the crucifixion.
Basically, mimetic theory seems to be a kind of sociological expansion upon the theory of evolution. Heim states, “What distinguished emergent humans from other primates was an increased mental plasticity coupled with susceptibility to cultural formation, a combination that spurred an explosion beyond simple genetic collection” (41). In other words, humans seem to have the innate tendency to imitate the behavior of others as well as “shape our own inner life and consciousness on models we infer from others” (ibid.).
However, this is not the only consequence of mimesis. Humans are also susceptible to desiring what we see others find desirable. This allows humans to create particularly intense communities in which ‘mimetic openness’ allows for creativity and innovation to flourish. Unfortunately, the human tendency for imitation also responds in the same manner to destructive dynamics. In other words, “Anger, suspicion, and fear ricochet quickly from one mind to another like light bouncing from mirror to mirror, and their power multiplies” (42). Further, violence (whether purposeful or accidental) begets violence. One person harms another, which leads that family to take revenge on the other, and so on. Without a cure, Girard says that human community can’t even hope to function.
Sacrifice is the cure to this violent, mimetic problem. In particular, “Spontaneous and irrational collective violence rains down upon some distinctive person or minority in the group” (43). The person or group can be arbitrary, though it is common for one who is sacrificed to be seen as an outsider or is somehow marginal. And the even more unfortunate thing is that this type of sacrifice works. The sacrifice of the scapegoat actually staves off the building violence within the community due to several factors. Mostly, though, it works because the community is able to unite against a common enemy (either explicitly or implicitly) who is seen as at once evil (the cause of the initial problem) and supernatural (in that their death somehow ‘magically’ stopped the cycle of violence).
Though we cannot go into much detail here, one final point needs to be made. Along with scapegoating, myth plays a large role in Girard’s theory of religion. Sacrifice and myth can be seen as two sides of the same coin: “Scapegoating is the event. Myth is the memory and the image of the event as perceived by those who carry it out” (52). Girard’s theory seems to indicate that scapegoating would have come first, as a remedy to violence that threatens to destroy the community, and myth would have come later to help explain why it is sacrifice works and to help propagate its future use.
In the next chapter, Heim will turn specifically to the Hebrew scriptures, in hopes of making sense of the sacrificial content there as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death as a non-violent atonement.