Saved from Sacrifice // Chapters 1 & 2

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.

S. Mark Heim - Saved from Sacrifice

S. Mark Heim – Saved from Sacrifice

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. (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

Rene Girard

Rene Girard

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.


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