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.
Every year when Lent rolls around, I tell myself that I really want to do something different this year for Lent/Holy Week/Good Friday/Easter Sunday. I internally say that I want to have a little more focus, maybe use the daily lectionary, maybe pray a little more, maybe do something to better understand what the atonement is and what Resurrection means and how it fits in this life of mine.
And then, you know. Work, kids, TV shows, new music, grass mowing, herb gardening, reading, visiting family, coffee roasting, and on and on.
None of it is bad. I actually AM trying to find ways to enjoy and just be in these daily and weekly rituals. This time with my girls and my wife that I will never get back if I keep checking my phone for Facebook and Twitter updates. Mowing the lawn is a lot more fun now that I’m an adult (Chris from ten years ago would look at me with such disdain).
So I can look back at this past couple of months that I gave up Twitter for (most of) Lent – only to replace it with constant Facebook checking – and be disappointed in myself. I can look back and be frustrated that I didn’t spend time in prayer nearly as much as I wanted to.
I can be satisfied. Content. Happy that I actually do have a fulfilling life. I can use this next few days to reflect on my failings and faults and successes over the last few months and change something about myself, about how I see the world and parenting and being a husband and a Jesus follower.
Is that the point of all this? To try and fail but try to not be discouraged but see where I can do better and see how the Spirit might be working in me and in the people around me that I love so dearly? I think so.
Maybe this Easter Sunday won’t feel special in any real way. Our family will go to church, hopefully have some time to reflect, both on what the Crucifixion might mean and what the Resurrection pulls us toward. We will do so while one of us bounces a five-month-old so she isn’t fussy and we both worry about how our two-year-old is doing in her little classroom. We’ll leave church and eat ham and play in our new backyard and maybe, even if for only a moment, we will experience a taste of the Kingdom of Heaven in our seemingly mundane lives.
For man seeks God in the law, and attempts to conform to him through the works of the law, in order to bring himself into the righteousness of God. If he sees and believes in God in the person of Christ, condemned by the law, he is set free from the legalist concern to justify himself. Man seeks God in the will for political power and world domination. If he sees and believes God in Christ who was powerless and crucified, he is set free from this desire to have power and domination over others. Man seeks to know God in the works and ordinances of the cosmos or the course of world history, in order to become divine himself through knowledge. If he sees and believes God in the suffering and dying Christ, he is set free from the concern for self-deification which guides him towards knowledge. Thus the knowledge of God in the crucified Christ takes seriously the situation of man in pursuit of his own interests, man who in reality is inhuman, because he is under the compulsion for self-justification, dominating self-assertion, and illusionary self-deification.
In short, the Christological crisis is one where everything that grounds us (the political, spiritual, and social) is torn away, where we stare into the void, and, as Nietzsche once said, we feel the void stare back. In this place we are alone as we dimly glimpse life without the gilded cage of religion. And it is here that we stand or fall. Here we must choose whether to embrace life or to turn and run. It is only here, in this dry and barren land of death, that we can approach the truth of life testified to in the event of Resurrection. If, however, Resurrection is not possible, then those who go through this death are, as the apostle Paul knew, ‘to be pitied more than all men.’
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.
At the risk of adding too much to my plate, I’d like to start another series on the blog, mainly for my own purposes. Since I graduated back in December, I decided that I would spend my extra time reading books that I was unable to during my undergraduate career due to time constraints or whatever else. In keeping with the promise I made to myself, I have read six books up to this point this year (which may not be much to some, but with a toddler running around, I have to say I’m impressed with myself!), and plan to read about thirty to forty by year’s end.
While doing so, I would also like to start an intensive book reviewing series. I’m not sure how often, but the current plan will be weekly, and I would like to start with Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (if you would like to see the other books I plan to read this year, click here).
Since the period of deep doubt and deconstruction of my faith began (it is by no means complete, nor do I think it ever will be), I have found my former understanding of the atonement as a penal substitution both untenable and – the more I read – unbiblical. This is where Saved from Sacrifice comes in. In his rethinking of the atonement, Heim is most strongly influenced by René Girard’s mimetic theory and sociological discoveries. These topics will be covered as we engage with Heim’s writing, chapter-by-chapter. Bear in mind that my primary reason for these reviews is for my own future reference. However, if you are reading and feel like you can contribute helpful dialogue and push-back, I will gladly welcome it!
So, let’s kick it off!
Heim starts the introduction with a recognition that any book about the atonement will be necessarily lacking. To reduce the work of Christ to simply the crucifixion and/or resurrection is always a mistake, and the author recognizes this from the start. However, this does not eliminate the need to talk about what happened at the cross, and why it’s important. Most of the current evangelical atonement theologies center around Christ as a sacrificial atonement for the sins of humanity. In other words, humanity has disobeyed God, and because of this, God’s sense of justice requires a blood sacrifice in repayment. Jesus, in this scenario, operates as the sacrifice that takes the punishment we ‘deserve,’ thereby allowing us to once again live in harmony with God (assuming we intellectually assent to this ‘truth’).
The problem is, in an increasingly modern culture, a God that demands a such a brutal punishment so that the ‘chasm’ between humanity and the divine could be crossed simply doesn’t make sense. Surely if God is ‘omnipotent,’ there had to be another way? (An idea Tony Jones discusses in one of his recent “Questions that Haunt Christianity” posts.) And if there was another way, we need to squarely come to grips with the fact that we believe in and worship a vengeful, violent deity. Heim says it this way:
This book is written because many find it hard to make sense of “Christ died for us.’ And it is written because others find it perfectly understandable and entirely objectionable, a dark brew of self-abnegation, violence, and abuse. They contend that belief in the redemptive power of Jesus’ death amounts to masochistic idealization of suffering. (3)
Of course, this is not to say that we need to scrap the atonement entirely for the sake of making Christianity somehow ‘relevant.’ Instead, we need to find an atonement that is both viable for the 21st century and takes biblical authority and tradition seriously (a point I agree with, even in spite of my disdain for ‘inerrancy’).
Atonement in Tradition
Before discussing what he notes as three or four major atonement theories throughout history that have dominated (at least western) Christianity, Heim briefly notes something very important. Theories of how the atonement work have NEVER been universally agreed-upon. Not only that, but they have also never been a part of creeds or statements of (‘little o’) orthodoxy. In other words, throughout history, Christians as a whole have never said that in order to be ‘saved,’ one must understand the atonement in a particular way. This includes the understanding of the Christ’s sacrifice as a substitution for our sins so humanity would not be punished and God’s wrath could be appeased. This – I think – should give us pause, especially those of us who, either currently or in the past, think (or thought) the only real way to be ‘saved’ is to believe in and accept what Jesus did on the cross as a substitution. That being said, here are the four major atonement theories:
- Penal Substitution – We’ve already discussed this one somewhat, so I’m not going to rehash. Plus, if you’re Evangelical or have Evangelical friends, you have no doubt heard this theory in one way or another.
- Moral Influence (or ‘Exemplarist’) – This theory suggests that Christ’s death “is meant to save us by making such a moving exhibition of God’s love that we are inwardly stirred to gratitude and service in return” (5). Though I could be wrong here, it seems to me that most of those who adhere to the ‘exemplarist’ model don’t (or at least don’t need to) take the divinity of Christ seriously. Heim also notes that it is best to understand Christ’s death within this theory not as “a transaction, but an inspiration” (5).
- Christus Victor – If you are at all familiar with The Chronicles of Narnia, particularly The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, then you may have a pretty good idea of how this theory works. Essentially, the cross is seen as God’s victory over some kind of power or third party (e.g., Satan, sin, etc.). God’s victory comes about by either paying a ransom (as if God is powerless to save humanity any other way) or “some form of trickery” — (think about how shocked the White Witch was that Aslan came back, despite their ‘deal’ to save Edmund).
- The Incarnational Model – Rather than focusing on the crucifixion as the crux to God’s saving work, the incarnational model views the divine incarnation in Jesus as the saving work. “God retraces the whole pattern of human life… transforming from within what has gone wrong with sinful humanity” (6). This theory/model focuses on God’s solidarity with humanity, up until and even through death.
Heim also notes at the end of this section that Christians most often understand the atonement as a combination of two or three of these theories to address different aspects of life. Although Heim and Scot McKnight seem to think that penal substitution can be combined with other theories, I disagree. If one accepts penal substitution as true, at best, other theories must take a backseat to substitution. (Tad DeLay has some thoughts on this here.)
The problem, for most people, is the notion of Christ as ‘sacrifice.’ Not only is the language archaic (i.e., some of its meaning is lost on us as modern westerners), but – to put it bluntly – it just sounds sort of sadistic. If we are going to take both Scripture and tradition seriously, we cannot simply get rid of the sacrificial language. However, what we can do is re-imagine it – hopefully in a way that gets closer to what Scripture was saying and more closely relates to Jesus’ peaceful, non-violent mission.
The Argument, in a Nutshell (The Anthropology of the Cross)
As Heim re-imagines the sacrificial language, he writes that the Gospels (and particularly the passion accounts) turn sacrificial language on its head. Normally, in ancient sacrificial scapegoating cultures (which is common to nearly every society, according to Girard), “communities solve their internal conflicts by uniting against a chosen victim… [which] staves off more generalized factional or retributive violence” (15). Not only that, but generally, the victim in these cultures generally stayed ‘invisible.’ Their story was unimportant; they were simply a means to an end. The Gospels, however, not only show God entering into our broken system of ‘justice’ – they tell the story from Christ’s (the victim’s!) perspective. The victim is no longer invisible, but is put on display for all to see.
The Hebrew scriptures, as Heim and others have noted, actually already point to the inherent injustice in the sacrificial scapegoating system. Nevertheless, the ultimate portrayal of its injustice is found and shown directly in the murder of Jesus as the ‘victim on display.’
This is where Heim will continue his writing, and where we will begin next time.