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.