Why did Jesus die? What is the point of the cross?
It’s not unusual to hear these questions, and I am often challenged to answer such questions by Christians and non-Christians alike. For a lot of people, the crucifixion just doesn’t “make sense.” How does Jesus’ death accomplish anything? How does it “save us from our sins?”
One of the responses the Church has offered is the concept of “substitutionary atonement.” That is, people are sinful, God is angry, and sin can only be “atoned for,” that is, made right, by the shedding of innocent blood. Somehow, this is what God requires. So God, in God’s wrath and anger toward us, sent Jesus down to take on the sin and punishment that we deserved, punishment reserved for humanity, and dies as our substitute to take away our sin.
I don’t think I’m the only one who has ever felt less than ecstatic, when not downright ambivalent by such theology. It hardly makes one feel loved by God to think that God was so unremittingly angry with everyone that all that anger and wrath had to be put on to Jesus in our place.
Yet…the cross is the center of the Christian faith! If the cross is without meaning and great significance, then Christians are a very sorry group of people.
I believe substitutionary atonement theology is a misunderstanding of the cross. So what is the point of the crucifixion then? Was Jesus’ death special or unique, does it have the power to “save”?
Let’s look at where this whole idea of atonement comes from.
It has been observed by cultural anthropologists around the world that sacrifice is a universal practice. Every culture, including all of our ancestors, sacrificed animals, and sometimes even humans, to “appease the gods.”
I can attest to this practice because it still occurs in many Third World countries today. In Thailand, the animists kill an animal in order to appease the local spirits and to make up for the “sins” they commit. When I was in Thailand and wanted to move into a house to rent, there was an altar set up in the yard to a local ruling spirit-god. I asked the landlord to please remove it. He said he would not be able to move it, lest he offend the spirit, unless he could kill a chicken as a sacrifice. So…a few days later there were dead chicken parts all around the altar and later the altar was gone. I was relieved, but felt sorry for the chicken.
As the anthropologist & theologian Rene Girard points out, what happens culturally in a sacrificial system is that the community finds a “scapegoat.” That is, someone to pin their evil, fear, and sin on to. They then either abuse, expel, or kill the scapegoat to get rid of their own fear and sin. In ancient traditions, goats were taken and killed with the people’s sins placed upon their backs. And that is where our term “scapegoat” actually comes from.
Scapegoats are chosen usually because they are younger, smaller, weaker, or different from the majority. Animals are a logical choice because of their relative helplessness next to humanity’s skill and technology.
However, there is one major problem with this sacrificial system of scapegoating. God is very clear in Scripture that God is not happy with this system. "I desire mercy not sacrifice!" says God in Hosea 6:6. Psalm 51:16-17 says, "For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart; These, O God, You will not despise." God is NOT bloodthirsty. God says,“Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and make thanksgiving your sacrifice to the Most High” (Psalm 50:13-14).
So, many of us today think, “Well, that system of scapegoating was primitive, violent, and vulgar, we no longer indulge in it! Or do we? Perhaps it has only taken a different form. For example:
-Shunning and abusing the poor is a form of scapegoating. Businesses urge cities to make it illegal to “loiter” near business and shopping areas because middle & upper class folks do not want to see homeless youth in that area and such people will supposedly drive shoppers away. If you are a group of youth dressed in clothes from the Gap, the police won’t arrest you for loitering. But if you are a group of homeless youth, I’ve seen the police kick and arrest such youths for “loitering.” The poor are somehow “at fault” for the lack of prosperity among these commercial businesses and are driven out for it.
-Racism is a form of scapegoating and it occurs against all different races. Minority races are often scapegoats in our culture. In the US our history of slavery and of lynching blacks are prime examples of this. Yet racism has been aimed at everyone in this country from the Irish to the Japanese.
-Sexism is also rooted in scapegoating. Whether it is men in the Church hierarchy saying that women are the root of evil and are unable to reflect Christ as clergy members or women who blame males for all evil…it is all scapegoating.
-Leaders are often easy scapegoats when things go wrong. We see this happen all the time when leaders in the government, corporations, or even churches are driven out and ‘sacrificed’ on behalf of the institution.
-Child abuse occurs in many homes in America and throughout the world. In such cases the children become the scapegoats of their parents or adult relatives.
-We often demonize and scapegoat those of other religious groups. Whether it is the medieval crusades, or southern Baptists against Episcopalians or Episcopalians against Southern Baptists or Aphgani terrorists scapegoating all Americans or Americans scapegoating Aphgani Muslims.
-In the USA we managed to scapegoat all those who were mentally or physically disabled by sterilizing 15,000 people in 1933. We believed that if we could just get rid of such persons, our society would be free of problems and we would become a “superior” nation.
-Around that time Nazi Germany took it a step farther and killed somewhere between 140,000 to 200,000 mentally disabled persons during their reign.
-But the Nazis killed 6 million Jews. It is still incomprehensible.
The Jewish people have been scapegoats for centuries for the world’s ills. They have even been blamed for Jesus’ death. It is no wonder they protest so loudly when there is any hint of anti-Semitism in films, books, or television programs.
-In California and elsewhere it is continually said that all the problems with the economy, welfare, and health care system are due to the “illegal aliens” who sneak across the border from Latin America and have immigrated here.
-Youth culture and music is often identified by those in power as the source of evil: from Jazz to Rock n Roll to Hip Hop to Rap to Heavy Metal to gangs to punks to hippies to goths to ravers.
-Animals today suffer torture and cruelty in our factory farms supported by our government, the commercial meat industry, and fast food chains. They are exploited for money and ‘bear our sin” of gluttony and greed. The thousands of sacrifices in the Temple in Jesus’ time is no match for our system of animal sacrifice which kills at the rate of 300 animals per second every day in the USA alone.
-Homosexuals are also scapegoats in our society as homophobia rages on in our nation and homosexuals are blamed for everything from the breakdown of the family to 9/11.
In fact, just about every evil and atrocity in our world can be traced back to this system of scapegoating. And these all stem from the same basic, sinful attitude.
But then Jesus enters into our world and preaches something radically different. In Jesus, God takes on this system of scapegoating most directly. Jesus preaches non-violence, turning the other cheek, and mercy. He says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will see God!” The Scriptures never report Jesus participating in animal sacrifice in the Temple, and, in fact, just days before he is killed he goes into the temple and drives out all those who were selling animals to be sacrificed! Jesus goes and embraces those who have been rejected and scapegoated in his society: the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the women, the lepers, the fishermen, and even the Gentiles.
Jesus also goes around forgiving people’s sins…not because they have sacrificed an animal to a bloodthirsty deity, but because God is able to forgive because God is merciful and accepts the sacrifice of a contrite heart!
As Hebrews 10:4-6 says:
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.
Jesus shows us once and for all what God is really like. Jesus, as the God-man, becomes the victim: not a victim to God’s wrath, but to humanity’s wrath. Jesus is the victim of our scapegoating mechanisms and structures. The inevitable end to Jesus’ life was death…and he knew it. Jesus shows us that, rather than condemning and victimizing others, God willingly becomes the victim to take the place of all our scapegoats.
It is no coincidence that Jesus died on the day of Passover, the day when the lambs were killed, the scapegoats of the day. Jesus takes the place of every scapegoat, and becomes instead, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!
Why does Jesus become the victim? Is it to encourage victimization and call us to be victims?
No! It is to put an end to all scapegoating and victimization! Jesus’ death took the place of the paschal lamb and of every scapegoat. We no longer need to abuse, kill, or sacrifice victims or scapegoats because God has already taken on that role in its fullest form. The cross exposes and reveals OUR sin of scapegoating and then, immediately forgives it! Jesus is the Lamb of God, he died on a cross to take the place of all scapegoats, animals and humans alike. Jesus’ death is substitionary only in that sense.
As S. Mark Heim, a Girardian theologian wrote in The Christian Century:
“God is willing to die for us, to bear our sin in this particular way, because we desperately need deliverance from the sin of scapegoating. God breaks the grip of scapegoating by stepping into the place of a victim, and by being a victim who cannot be hidden or mythologized. God acts not to affirm the suffering of the innocent victim as the price of peace, but to reverse it."
Heim asks, "IS CHRIST'S DEATH UNIQUE? It is not, since it is crucial to the saving "work" of the cross to recognize that Jesus' death is precisely the same as that of so many other victims. And yet by virtue of this identification it is unique because it is the one of all these deaths that have been happening from the foundation of the world that irreversibly shows us the sin in which we are everywhere enmeshed and in which God has acted on the side of the victims" (“Visible victim,” The Christian Century, March 14, 2001, by S. Mark Heim).
We, as a people, are all guilty of the sin of scapegoating in one form or another. Some of us have also been victims of it. The Cross exposes all of us. We must exercise the sacrifice of mercy, not of violence. That is the call of the cross. Jesus, the Lamb of God, has been slain for this purpose. AMEN.