The Cross on which Jesus died is central to Christian faith, but what does it mean? A longstanding and popular view has been called substitutionary penal atonement –the idea that God, the judge, sentenced Jesus, the innocent one, to die in my place as a sacrifice for my sins. Even though sinners deserved to die, God was willing instead to punish an innocent victim, Jesus, for the sins of others. Although it is said that God does this because God loves us, the portrait of God that emerges tends to be punitive, angry, violent and abusive. Also one might question the idea that an innocent man should be punished for the guilt of others. It does not sound just at all. This theology originated with Anselm in the 11th century, but is very popular today, especially in Christian evangelical and fundamentalist circles.
Mark Heim, Professor of Theology at Andover-Newton Theological School, rescues us from this punitive theology. But first he points out that sacrificial language and imagery is central to the Gospel – filtering out all such references leaves a hollow shell. Other theologies of the Cross (Jesus as heroic example or teacher, Christ as victor or liberator over bondage, Christ incarnate as healer) do not know what to do with sacrifice, so they tend to ignore it.
Heim takes his cue from the French anthropologist, Rene Girard, who did a great deal of research into the practice of sacrifice in ancient cultures. Ritual sacrifice of a scapegoat was seen as a way to bring peace to a group or society in great crisis. The victim was sacrificed to let steam out of the system, as it were, and it worked for a while, until the next crisis. The Bible rejects this practice of violent ritual sacrifice, starting with the story of Abraham and Isaac (the move from human to animal sacrifice), then hearing the voice of the victim, the scapegoat (Job, Psalms, Jonah, the prophets). The Old Testament makes it clear that God wants justice and mercy not the sacrifice of humans or animals.
The story of the suffering of Jesus is set in this context of the Old Testament rejection of scapegoating sacrifice. Heim argues that the Cross itself is the final rejection of scapegoating. Scapegoating is an evil thing, but “God’s willingness to bear the worst that this system visits on its victims, in order to deliver us from it, is the good thing” (p.193). By identifying with the victim and submitting to scapegoating, God shines a spotlight on the problem of redemptive violence. By raising Jesus from the dead God vindicates the victim and sets free the oppressors. Scapegoating is the fundamental and universal sin that caused the Cross and it is that sin for which Jesus died. The Cross is the end of scapegoating. All human groups and societies have participated in scapegoating, so all are guilty. In this sense Jesus dies for us all.
The Church is the new community built on solidarity with the victim, not participating in scapegoating. Paul is an example of the way oppressors are set free and converted to solidarity with the victim (he had previously been a persecutor of Christians). Scapegoating has continued throughout Christian history (e.g., witchcraft, slavery, anti-Semitism) but the Cross has always challenged the Church to end it. Perverse interpretations of the Cross often seek to justify scapegoating (e.g. slaves should accept submission and obey authority; Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death). But we should be in no doubt that the Cross is God’s end to scapegoating.
How does God deal with other sins? Heim responds that God can forgive sins without atoning sacrifice, but scapegoating may also be seen as representative of all sin. If God forgives scapegoating, God may forgive any sin.
I have long had a problem with the traditional language of the church about Jesus dying for our sins, especially whenever it is said or implied that God was punishing Jesus for our sins (hymns about the blood of Jesus abound). I very much appreciate Heim’s explanation that the Cross means the opposite, that God was not punishing Jesus but dealing a fatal blow to scapegoating as the universal human sin. I also very much appreciate that he locates sin in its systemic context of the human addiction to blaming others and to violence. Christians often get hung up on neurotic personal “sins” and ignore the social ethical implications of our faith. “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
There is no need to narrow the meaning of Jesus’ death to only a rejection of scapegoating (Heim does not do this). The continuing relevance of the Cross lies in its multiplicity of meanings. To some the Savior from guilt and sin will appeal, especially in the healing power of forgiveness. To some the God who stands on the side of the victim, and has stood in the place of the victim, will appeal. To some the God who opposes injustice, including scapegoating, will appeal. To some the God who has become one of us and lived a loving life overcoming despair and fear will appeal. To some the God who offers victory over death will appeal. There is meaning in the Cross for all who will take a look.