Was Christ Just Another Scapegoat?

by Mark Gordon

“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.” Psalm 51:16

“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’” Matthew 9:13

This post grew out of an exchange with a good friend. Responding to my challenge to conventional atonement theology, a challenge based on the work of Rene Girard, my friend commented:

God gave the Hebrews holocausts and animal sacrifices and burnt offerings, did he not? Is [Rene] Girard saying those were only to satisfy the people’s need for scapegoats and releases ” not God’s desire for something sacramental that He received through the complete sacrificing (i.e., doing without) of valuable things? Sorry to put it in such contemporary terms, but I’ve always thought O.T. sacrifice was something like God saying to his people, “OK, you had your sin. Now give up this in order to balance the injustice you’ve created on earth and to help restore order where your sin has knocked the cosmos off kilter.” In this construction, of course, Jesus is the perfect, unblemished Lamb “sacrificed once for all so that no more lambs, goats, turtledoves or whatever would have to be sacrificed ever again. He did this not to save dumb, soulless animals but us, for whom the animals had been standing in, per His instructions.

My friend was in fact very close to the truth uncovered by Rene Girard’s work, but because he was still thinking in sacrificial, substitutionary terms, that truth eluded him. This is not meant at all as a personal criticism; the propensity to think in such terms is embedded in the very anthropology of sinful humanity, which is why the resort to “sacred violence” is always a danger, even among those most deeply immersed in the Gospel message. It’s impossible to develop this fully in this forum, but let me try to address the specific question my friend posed in his response above.

Girard would say that in order to break the spell of the “sin of the world,” the ritualized violence by which human beings had since the beginning created social harmony and appropriated a sense of the transcendent, God chose a people as his own and began the process of moving them away from the sacrificial “sacrality” that marked every other archaic religious system. He did this knowing that from this people would emerge a “light to the nations,” a perfectly innocent savior who through his radical identification with the victims of sacred violence would bring the “sword” of desacralization to the whole world. (c.f. Matthew 10:34-36) His means for achieving this end was to inculcate his people with the Law, including a set of ceremonial prescriptions that set this people apart from all of their neighbors in the ancient world.

Take the scapegoat, for instance. In ancient Palestine, the gods of Moloch (c.f. Leviticus 18:21) and Baal (c.f. Jeremiah 19:5) were dominant, and both of their cults centered on the sacrifice of children as propitiation for the sins of the community. Into this milieu God introduces the “scapegoat,” literally a goat presented once each year in the Temple. The Chief Priest lays his hands on the goat, ritually imposes the sins of the people on his head, and then orders the goat banished into the Judean wilderness. At the same time, a bull and another goat are slaughtered and immolated as a burnt offering to the Lord. Taken together, the bull and two goats represent a substitute for the human victims – the human scapegoats – of every other archaic religion. It is a radical departure from the norms of sinful human culture, a moral revolution that underlines the distinction between those who follow the one True God and those still languishing in systems based on sacrificial violence.

At the same time, through the codification of the Law and the preaching of the prophets, God announces time and again that the offerings he truly desires are obedience, purity, and love. God preserved the form of archaic religion – sacrifice – while simultaneously bringing the practice of that system in line with the moral law revealed in the Ten Commandments. He did this to ease the anthropological transition of his people from the sacrificial (sinful and man-centered) to the sacramental (divine and God-centered). In the old sacrificial system, man offered something to God as a propitiation for sin, and that something was invariably the most valuable thing he possessed – human life! But in order to hide the shame of this sinful offering, archaic religion erected elaborate myths that transformed innocent victims into guilty scapegoats and turned the one True God of love into gods full of wrath. In the sacramental system, by contrast, it is God who offers himself to Man, not to satisfy his own sense of retributive justice, but to break the myth of the guilty victim and thereby cause the sinful human sacrificial system to crumble. For us to believe that Christ’s death is demanded by the Father requires us to accept that he has reversed this entire process and reverted to what is essentially a substitutionary murder as propitiation for sin. But, in fact, all of the Old Testament points to the cessation of murder, the breaking of the sacrificial system, in the self-donation of the God-Man. He was crucified by us and for us, but not to satisfy the Father; rather, he laid down his life to break the cycle of murder and myth-making, the “sin of the world.”

This is why the author of Hebrews writes:

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming”not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.”
Then he said, “Here I am: it is written about me in the scroll ‘I have come to do your will, O God.’” First he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’ (although the law required them to be made). Then he said, ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will.’ He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

The chief modern criticism of Christianity has been that it is just another collection of myths, and not a terribly original collection at that. This was the position of Joseph Campbell, of the PBS series and bestselling book, “The Power of Myth,” who called the Bible “tribally circumscribed mythology” and Christianity “sanctified chauvinism.” As Campbell and others point out, there are many mythical systems featuring divine saviors, holy books, resurrections, virgin births, ascensions, etc. All the elements of Christianity, they say, can be located in myths from around the world. The only thing unique about Christianity is that it rode the crashing wave of the Roman Empire and emerged from the froth as the dominant myth in the dominant West. Christian penal-substitutionary atonement theology accommodates this modern critique because it shares a sacrificial basis with all archaic religion.

The work of Rene Girard is different. By examining the anthropological grounding of archaic religion and comparing it to the biblical texts, Girard has uncovered the key to the utterly unique, essential, and necessarily divine nature of Christianity. When asked in a recent interview if he considered Christianity “superior” to all other faiths, here’s what Girard said:

Yes. All of my work has been an effort to show that Christianity is superior and not just another mythology. In mythology, a furious mob mobilizes against scapegoats held responsible for some huge crisis. The sacrifice of the guilty victim through collective violence ends the crisis and founds a new order ordained by the divine. Violence and scapegoating are always present in the mythological definition of the divine itself.

It is true that the structure of the Gospels is similar to that of mythology in which a crisis is resolved through a single victim who unites everybody against him, thus reconciling the community. As the Greeks thought, the shock of death of the victim brings about a catharsis that reconciles. It extinguishes the appetite for violence. For the Greeks, the tragic death of the hero enabled ordinary people to go back to their peaceful lives.

However, in this case, the victim is innocent and the victimizers are guilty. Collective violence against the scapegoat as a sacred, founding act is revealed as a lie. Christ redeems the victimizers through enduring his suffering, imploring God to “forgive them for they know not what they do. He refuses to plead to God to avenge his victimhood with reciprocal violence. Rather, he turns the other cheek.

The victory of the Cross is a victory of love against the scapegoating cycle of violence. It punctures the idea that hatred is a sacred duty.

The Gospels do everything that the (Old Testament) Bible had done before, rehabilitating a victimized prophet, a wrongly accused victim. But they also universalize this rehabilitation. They show that, since the foundation of the world, the victims of all Passion-like murders have been victims of the same mob contagion as Jesus. The Gospels make this revelation complete because they give to the biblical denunciation of idolatry a concrete demonstration of how false gods and their violent cultural systems are generated.

This is the truth missing from mythology, the truth that subverts the violent system of this world. This revelation of collective violence as a lie is the earmark of Judeo-Christianity. This is what is unique about Judeo-Christianity. And this uniqueness is true.