The (True?) Story of the Cross (RJS)

Holy Week culminating in Easter Sunday is the pivotal week and powerful week in the Christian calendar because it remembers and celebrates the central events in the Christian story- crucifixion and resurrection. The next two chapters of Tim Keller’s book €™ The Reason for God focus on these two events – crucifixion (Ch. 12) and resurrection (Ch. 13).

According to Keller The Gospel of Christ – the good news – is wrapped up in the story of the cross. This story however causes a great deal of consternation in our western world. Why was sacrifice required? Why did Jesus die? Isn’t the appeasement of the wrath of God best classed as divine child abuse — a remnant of an older more primitive society?

To be fair, Keller never uses the term “wrath of God” in this chapter, and he casts the story of the atonement in terms that bear little resemblance to typical presentations of penal substitution.

So what does he say?

First: Forgiveness always requires sacrifice. When we forgive we bear the consequence, the suffering, ourselves rather than demanding retribution. No one “just forgives” any grievous wrong. How much more then for God? God did not, then, inflict pain on someone else, but rather on the Cross absorbed the pain, violence, and evil of the world into himself. This was not just an example,€“ but an ultimate act of forgiveness. Of course Keller does go a bit beyond this as well: “this is a God who becomes human and offers his own lifeblood in order to honor moral justice and merciful love so that some day he can destroy all evil without destroying us.” (p. 192)

Second: Real love involves a personal exchange. More than this, genuine life-changing love requires substitutional sacrifice, benefiting the other at the expense (large or small) of ourselves. When the needs of the other are large the sacrificial cost,€“ the expense,€“ is also large. “how can God be a God of love if he does not become personally involved in suffering the same violence, oppression, grief, weakness, and pain that we experience?” (p. 195) The answer is that God can’t – and the Christian story is that the God of love does become personally involved. “God, in the place of ultimate power, reverses places with the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed.” (p. 196)

According to Keller the story of the cross involves forgiveness, sacrifice, substitution, justice, mercy, reversal, and identification. God for us. The act – the historical event -€“ is the turning point in human history.

The Great Reversal. In highlighting the great reversal in the cross Keller quotes NT Wright from Simply Christian:

This pattern of the Cross means that the world’s glorification of power, might, and status is exposed and defeated. On the Cross Christ wins through losing, triumphs through defeat, achieves power through weakness and service, comes to wealth via giving all away. Jesus Christ turns the values of the world upside down. As N. T. Wright says:

The real enemy, after all, was not Rome but the powers of evil that stood behind human arrogance and violence … [On the cross] the kingdom of God triumphed over the kingdoms of this world by refusing to join into their spiral of violence. [On the cross, Jesus] would love his enemies, turn the other cheek, go the second mile.

This upside-down pattern so contradicts the thinking and notice of the world that it creates an “alternate kingdom,” an alternate reality, a counterculture among those who have been transformed by it. In this peaceable kingdom there is a reversal of values of the world with regard to power, recognition, status, and wealth.  (p. 196)

So Keller sees both costly forgiveness and reversal at play in the Cross:

To understand why Jesus had to die it is important to remember both the result of the Cross (costly forgiveness of sins) and the pattern of the Cross (reversal of world’s values). On the cross neither justice nor mercy loses out – both are fulfilled at once. Jesus’s death was necessary if God was going to take justice seriously and still love us. (p. 197)

The Power of the Cross. Of course this idea that the Cross actually accomplished something profound is not a popular view in our world today. Keller opens this chapter with a quote from Ghandi in An Autobiography

I could accept Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher. His death on the cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it, my heart could not accept. (p. 186)

Not only is the power of the Cross, the idea that something profound was accomplished in the crucifixion, an unpopular view in our world, it seems an unpopular view in much of the church. The response to my post on Gospel or Religion leads me to expect, perhaps, some push back against anything Keller might say about the true story of the Cross and the atoning sacrifice of Christ.  Yet the Gospels lead up to and dwell on the crucifixion. If the gospels are the Gospel – the crucifixion is central. And Paul begins his description of the gospel proclamation in 1 Corinthians 15:3

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.

John points out in 1 John 4:10

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

And Colossians 1:19-22

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.

Rather than push against some of the more extreme expressions of penal substitution found among (neo)-reformed preachers and theologians, I would ask that we focus on what is right or wrong with this outline of Keller’s chapter on the cross.  And this leads to a range of important questions well worth some serious discussion.

How would you describe the importance of the cross?

Is the importance in example? in story? or is it more?

What do you think of Keller’s view of forgiveness and love involving exchange?

Is the necessity of sacrifice an outgrown remnant of an earlier time?

What is the (True) Story of the Cross?

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  • Norman

    I think the cross would have little meaning if not for the resurrection. Christ the last Adam becomes the representative figure that is lifted up to be gazed upon to save those afflicted with the death of Adam. That is the intent of Christ statement in John 3 in which those who gazed upon the lifted serpent found their life.

    Joh 3:14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

    I believe this means that we look to Christ as the embodiment of pure religion instead of human methods of attainment. Christ freed the prisoners from Sheol (captive to the ways of Adam that brought death/separation from God).

    Eph 4:8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”

    1Co 15:54-57 … “Death is swallowed up in victory.” … But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Rom 5:14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of ADAM, WHO WAS A TYPE of the one who was to come.

    Rom 7:24-25 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this communal body of death in Adam? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

  • RJS

    Sure Norman – the cross would have no meaning without the resurrection. I believe Keller would agree with that, and I certainly agree with that.

    But why the cross? Why not … run over by a chariot, trampled by a horse, crushed in the collapse of a building, a fall from a cliff, drowning on the Sea of Galilee, a disease such as cancer or the flu?

    Surely resurrection could lead to victory over death after any of these – especially if we believe (as some do) that they are all consequences of the brokenness of the world.

  • Tim

    Interesting stuff. I once heard Alister McGrath discuss the crucifixion in somewhat similar concepts. I would wonder though if Keller, or perhaps some here at Jesus Creed, recognize the application of scapegoat theology among the NT writers – which aligns perhaps more with the views of the critics to whom Keller refers than the far more nuanced and spiritually interesting views of himself and Alister McGrath on this issue. Perhaps could there be a degree of misinterpretation among the Gospel writers of the crucifixion event? A misapplied of the cultural practice of Scapegoating and Blood Sacrifice?

  • scotmcknight

    Tim, I read Girard’s stuff when I was working on atonement theory and I struggled with his theories a bit even I thought he unlocked at dimension or two of what went on — in particular the recognition of the injustice of the death of Jesus and God siding with Jesus. That element is neglected in so much of the Good Friday/Easter weekend services and remains important to the reality of the story itself.

    However, Girard’s thesis is not about forgiveness, which Yom Kippur is about and forgiveness is a major theme in the impact of Jesus’ death; and I see very little scapegoat theory at work in the Pauline texts about the death of Jesus and esp in the Book of Hebrews. So I found Girard to be helpful, but not much when it came to atonement theory itself.

  • I think that ultimately any atttempt to say more about the things of God than Scripture says is speculation — legitimate, but still speculative, and not likely to explain things fully. That is why I find the agressive reaction against anyone questioning penal substitution inappropriate.

    However, I think that the answer to the question posed by RJS in comment #2 above, “But why the cross? Why not … run over by a chariot, trampled by a horse, crushed in the collapse of a building, a fall from a cliff, drowning on the Sea of Galilee, a disease such as cancer or the flu?” is pretty clear: because none of these ways of dying listed here represent the execution of a criminal.

    It’s the cross because the cross is punishment.

  • Bob

    The Cross was then – and represents now – the world’s greatest capacity to impose its will upon – and correspondingly, its capacity to humiliate, shame, lie about, and destroy – those it deems as standing in its way. The world makes its own demands for absolute devotion, and John reminds Christians not to agape the world or the things in the world (1Jn. 2:15-17). Put another way, the world insists that we embrace rebellion against God; many oblige.

  • RJS

    Wolf Paul,

    So why is the execution of a criminal important? Is it punishment alone? I don’t buy it. Unjust punishment at the hands of human evil perhaps.

  • A helpful summary – thanks for the post!
    For questions 1, 2, and 5: In the Gospels, Jesus’ repeated predictions of his death and resurrection, his identification (by John the baptist) as the Lamb of God, his connection to the suffering servant of Isaiah, the necessity (Greek dei) of his suffering, and his explanation of his death as a ransom (Mark 10:45) all seem like good starting points.

    Also significant are the extended descriptions of the manner in which Jesus suffered (honest but trusting communication with the Father, forgiving his enemies, etc.).

    All of this would need to be related to the greater story of God’s saving work in the world, a story begun in the OT, realized in the Gospels, and then further explained in the epistles and Revelation.

  • T


    Good post and good stuff from Keller.

    On this: “But why the cross? Why not … run over by a chariot, trampled by a horse . . . ?” I think there are multiple reasons here, but one that strikes me as significant is that the cross was already, before Christ, an instrument to send a message about power and who had it, all over the Roman empire. It was more a form of macabre propaganda for Rome even more than a form of execution. I think Jesus rise from it was God converting Rome’s instrument of telling it’s message into God’s for God’s message. It was very similar to God’s choosing of Pharaoh, the human high-point of power at the time of the Exodus, to send a message to everyone about himself. The cross did not defeat Rome as the zealots wanted, but it did humble her, and put her in her place vis a vis the true Lord of the world, who not only rose from its cross, but fried much bigger fish than Rome in beating death and sin itself.

  • Tim


    Could you elaborate on the bit about scapegoat theology not being very present in the Pauline texts?

  • Percival

    The story of the cross has ripple effects. It gives birth. It branches out — Reconciliation (making peace), Covering/Atonement, Redemption (paying for), Defeating Sin & Death, Revelation of God’s heart (“Father forgive them”). And the Resurrection and Pentecost is more outgrowth — the New Creation, the Kingdom Come, Life is Released, the Flock is gathered out of many nations, The Word grows.

    I know we would like an organizing principle and a hierarchy of truth but I see it as more organic than that. One part grows out of another. Truth develops into new shapes and organs using the same DNA. Organic reiteration. Reiteration of the cross and the empty tomb in our lives and communities. (Ours the cross the grave, the skies.)

  • Percival

    RJS #7,
    Punishment, yes. But there are two other big reasons for a cross. Shame/Dishonor and Oppression/Injustice. The cross is the culmination and symbol of all the evil we perpetrate on each other as we dishonor God and His creation.

    Could it have been an electric chair? A rope hanging? Both too quick. The goal of crucifixion was also to display the power of the oppressor over a people and to shame those who oppose the oppression. It wasn’t just to kill someone.

  • norman


    Thanks for the nice segue. I think if we turn over to Hebrews we can see a discussion from a Jewish understanding on the importance of OT typology and its fulfillment by Christ; these stand as multiple witnesses that validate Him. The NT Midrash interpretation of the signs and events that culminated with Christ but especially His resurrection was all important elements validating His authenticity. Christ told the Jews that the only sign He would provide them was the sign of Jonah (three days in the tomb, this apparently fulfilled what Christ saw in His midrash interpretation of the Jonah story). We see this in other early Christian writings where Christ death on the Cross fulfilled OT symbols regarding hanging on a Tree or the wood of the Cross. Some of these symbols are seen in the story of Abraham’s call to sacrifice his son of the promise on Mt. Moriah.

    I’m not sure the means of death would have mattered except in the establishment of OT scripture as a witness to its fulfillment that Jews specifically understood from their rituals. The shedding of blood and the animal sacrifices that exchanged an animal life for the human through temple sacrificial systems had deeper meaning to them than to us so the typology is important to early Christians. Again the Hebrew author lays out some of this rationale to a degree for us. I think it meant more to the Jews as validation than it would to us because of their intimate relationship and teaching regarding these symbols. Similarly when we visit a Messianic Jewish worship experience and encounter their historical examination and meaning. Another good early Christian read is the Barnabas Epistle who delves into the Christian Midrash interpretive method and explains some of these observations.

    I’m not from the reformed background and don’t study their methods so I really can’t provide a good interrogation of their analysis. However I generally shy away from reformed thinking because I believe they often over literalize scripture to draw their conclusions but that’s just my opinion.

  • scotmcknight

    Tim, I would ask where Paul’s atonement language raises language of scapegoating…. so nothing to elaborate.

  • Tim

    Thanks for the reply Scot. I’ll type up my thoughts and questions on this this evening.

  • phil_style

    @Tim, #15,

    From the Girardian lectionary I found this resource: Hamerton-Kelly, Robert G. Sacred Violence: Paul’s Hermeneutic of the Cross – Provides an introduction to Girard’s theories and then applies them to the writings of St. Paul.

    GL page is here:

  • Nicholas

    I love your metaphor about Atonement theories being golf clubs.. I think it’s a humble view that takes into account the different ways Christ’s work is represented by different writers.

    Lately, however, I have been helped when in comes to Anselm and Substitution by Daniel Bell’s new book ‘Economy of Desire’. Bell maintains that the neo-reformed view of substitution doesn’t represent Anselm or Paul, but our own capitalist imagination and a ‘strict accounting of what is due.’ We have a debt problem they say, and Christ’s work is needed to settle the divine-human balance.

    Bell, with help from a close reading of Anselm, maintains that God’s honor does not demand wrath, but God, in Christ, shows not that “one pay for thwarting God’s intentions but that God’s intentions not be thwarted.” And through a divine donation and substitution of Himself restores community in an act of “plenitude, ceaseless generosity, and superabundance. As such it runs counter to every economy that operates on the basis of scarcity, debt, desert, and a strict accounting of what is due.” An economy that drives, in my opinion, the ‘neo-reformed’ view… Scarcity, debt, etc.

  • Nicholas

    Sorry, my concious makes me tell ya’ll that Bell does NOT specifically apply this view to ‘reformed’ in the book as my last comment made it sound! To me personally (but still applied by me), that is the most prevalent stream of thought in America of the ‘economy’ of Atonement he is opposed to.

  • I think that the broad approach that Keller seems to be taken is an idea (better: model) whose time has come. I’m delighted that this post has validated something I’ve been talking about for about 15 years and recently decided to try to write down in a series of blog posts (jump into the most relevent here: We need to return to forgiveness and considering what it involves and then looking at the cross with that in mind. This surely suits the ‘personalist’ contemporary turn and helps us to extract ourselves from the metaphoric thrall to bureaucratised forgiveness in legal systems. The comments above are really helpful in identifying the challenges in explaining and promoting this kind of view of Atonement.

  • Dana Ames

    Why the cross and not some other form of death? I think T has it, along with the shame aspect. Ties in very neatly with Wright and McKnight emphasizing the kingship of Jesus over and against the emperor. The Gospels lead to the cross because the cross is exactly how God became King – it is on the cross that Jesus came into his Kingdom – shamed, humiliated, and, from all outside views, defeated.

    I can go with Keller in his expression of God taking up into himself all the evil in the world and its results; I think something like that is the meaning of sin being crucified in the sarx of Christ. I think forgiveness and love don’t always involve exchange, or at least an equal exchange. Sometimes the beloved is not capable of returning love or responding to forgiveness, at least at that point in time.

    Even before I became Orthodox, I had come to the point that I did not believe penal substitution was was the true story. Substitution and sacrifice are parts of it, but in service of what to me are larger realities that are more connected with the Jewish backdrop of the 1st Century, and less about the Reformation and what it was reacting against: Jesus on the cross showing who God is; Jesus telling us that the way to be like God is to love all and forgive all, particularly our enemies, and displaying that on the cross; God descending into death in order to free humanity from it. These realities evoke a much greater sense of thanksgiving in me than a soterian message about the cross ever did.

    The sacrifice forgiveness requires is our sacrifice of our need for vengeance, and that’s why the cross cannot be about any kind of retribution, whether one sees it as the display of forgiveness or the instrument of forgiveness. Other than that, I think Keller’s approach is a step up from the usual explanations.

    One good, short Orthodox explanation is here:


  • Jon G

    Tim and Scot,

    As I understand Girard’s Scapegoat Theory (and I subscribe to it, btw) it is highly dependent on Mimetic Theory – the notion that humans learn by copying the behaviors of other humans. Inherent in that learning is that we also see value in what other’s value. And inherent in that value assessment is a desire to obtain those valuables from the others that currently possess them (whether it be food, power, money, etc.). And inherent in that (!) is a human tendency to obtain those valuables through violent measures (acts of power).

    From Wikipedia:

    1.mimetic desire: all of our desires are borrowed from other people;
    2.mimetic rivalry: all conflict originates in mimetic desire;
    3.the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry;
    4.the Bible reveals the three previous ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism.

    Brian McLaren, in his recent book, “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross The Road” has a whole chapter detailing this and how it plays out in the Biblical narrative. I think he does a good job demonstrating its explanatory power. Tony Jones is also a proponent of the theory and writes a bit about it in his short book “A Better Atonement”.

    But this is the thing…Scot, you said
    “However, Girard’s thesis is not about forgiveness, which Yom Kippur is about and forgiveness is a major theme in the impact of Jesus’ death;”

    I would agree that Yom Kippur is about forgiveness and Jesus’ death impacts forgiveness, but his death occured on Passover and not Yom Kippur. That fact must carry some weight and might mean that liberation is the guiding theme to Easter rather than forgiveness. Of course forgiveness is part of liberation, but the thrust is liberation and I think Scapegoat Theory is saying that, on the cross, God was liberating us from this universally used method of change through violence or power and instead showing us a more effective method of change through love and sacrifice.

    So on the cross, the Scapegoat Theorist (as I understand it) would see God showing once and for all that our violent ways are impotent and destructive while true power comes through love and self-sacrifice. Forgiveness being one of the main ways that we show love and self-sacrifice, as Keller mentions above.

  • Nathan

    This is really fascinating. Thanks for this…

    It doesn’t strike me as a non-sequitur to invoke Girard.
    Girard is talking about deep anthropological structures that don’t have to be explicitly named to be in play.

    What is the whole pursuit of Empire itself, if not at some deep level a massive communal outworking of mimetic desire? Jesus’ contradictory Kingship is an affront to that Empire. Simultaneously subverting, but still claiming to itself supremacy, true power, etc.

    and the function of Shame/Dishonor and Oppression/Injustice via Crucifixion seem to have confluence with the idea of scapegoating, IMO.

  • Jon G

    Nevermind what I said. Your next post has this all covered! 🙂

  • Josh

    In the gospel the apostles told these are the reasons Jesus died.

    [23] this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2.23)


    [36] Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36)


    [13] The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. 14 But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, 15 and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. (Acts 3:13–15)


    10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. 11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. (Acts 4.10-11)


    [30] The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. (Acts 5.30)


    And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, (Acts 10:39)


    27 For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him. 28 And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. (Acts 13.27-29)


    22 To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: 23 that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” (Acts 26.22-23)

    In summary, the reasons for why Jesus died as per the gospel the apostles delivered in Acts are;
    1) It was God’s set plan predicted in various Old Testament promises and prophecies,
    2) The Jews at Jerusalem delivered Jesus up to Pilate and asked that he be crucified.

    In my opinion it is the soterian gospel that imports what we learn from the epistles (letters written to church audiences) about the cross into the gospel message to the unchurched (presumably nonbelievers outside the church).

  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    This is an interesting discussion!

    I’m not entirely sure that the question “Why the cross?” taken in the abstract is especially helpful. Such would seem to assume that the cross has some meaning all by itself–or that there is some independent frame of reference within which the cross is located that stands apart from the larger frame of Jesus’ own story or even the story of God-with-Israel. Neither the gospel writers nor Paul, I would argue, present the cross as a puzzle piece unto itself, as making sense apart from a larger frame of reference that is integrated with the story of Israel and the story of creation.

    The meaning of the cross, it seems to me, should be reckoned in the first place with reference to whose cross it was–viz., Jesus Christ–and thus with reference to Jesus’ own life, teaching, ministry, and ultimately his resurrection and ascension. Through his life-ministry, Jesus taught and practiced renunciation of retribution and forgiveness of sin–and that is precisely what he did through his death on the cross (and which he continues to do by intercession from heaven). The cross of Jesus was, as the gospel writers tell and the apostles preached, an unjust punishment if ever there was one–yet, they insist, the divine victim of this human crime refuses retribution against the perpetrators and instead offers them forgiveness.

    Moreover, as Paul tells in Philippians 2 by way of an early Christian hymn text, Jesus’ story follows a “kenotic” pattern: equality with God, emptying of self, taking human form, humbling as a servant, obedience unto death–even death on a cross. Within this story, the cross is, in effect, the lowest point of descent, the emptiest place in the cosmos, and God-in-Christ chooses to occupy that “nothing” place for the sake of the salvation of humanity. The cultural shame associated with crucifixion is relevant here–this is the worst possible position for anyone, let alone God, to be–such that the cross indicates God’s willingness to “trade places” with humanity in its shameful situation of separation from God by sin. In this way, the message of the cross is that God-in-Christ was willing to go the full length, plumb the full depth, to redeem humanity. To this we might add the formulas in the writings of Paul and Peter that speak of an “interchange” between Christ and humanity, formulas the presage the view of Irenaeus: In Christ, God has given himself to be where we are so that, in Christ, we might be where God is.

    But that is not all: God, honoring Jesus’ humility and obedience, taken to the extreme at the cross, exalts Jesus to the highest place, the place of lordship above all things. The cross and lordship are thus intimately connected: there is no lord of all things other than the one who died on a cross, there is none higher in the cosmos than the one who went to the lowest place for the sake of the salvation of humanity.

    If you’re interested in a thorough version of this sort of interpretation of Jesus’ death for us, as an alternative to the standard penal substitution view, consider reading my book: ATONEMENT, JUSTICE, AND PEACE: THE MESSAGE OF THE CROSS AND THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH (Eerdmans 2012).

  • Tim


    I had a chance to look over Girard, and I think there may be a misunderstanding here. I did not have any of Girard’s notions of mimetic desire, rivarly, etc. in mind when I was speaking of scapegoating. I realize that Girard employs this term, hence the confusion, but I was instead, quite literally, referring to the Israelite sacrificial practice from which (along with similar religious rites) the term “scapegoat” is derived.

    We all know that individual Israelites would offer sacrificial offerings to atone for their own sins throughout the year. But once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest of Israel took two goats and presented them at the tabernacle to atone, corporately, for the nation of Israel’s sins as a whole. One goat was slaughtered as a blood sacrifice (The Lord’s Goat), while the other had the sins of the nation laid upon it and then driven out into the wilderness (The Azazel Goat). Thus the sin of the nation of Israel was removed by the atoning blood sacrifice of the Lord’s Goat and the symbolic carrying away of sins upon the Azazel goat.

    We see in the in several passages in the NT employ similar themes in explaining the event of Jesus’ Crucifixion. The Gospel of John identifies Jesus as the Sacrificial Lamb, an atoning sacrifice for sin efficacious for all who believe. Romans presents the shedding of Jesus blood as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Hebrews presents Jesus’ Crucifixion as a perfect sacrifice (in contrast to baser animal sacrifices), to make holy the body of Christ once and for all. And perhaps the passage that most clearly illustrates the scapegoating concept of “laying on of sins”, we have 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

    So this is what I had in mind as far as the application of the Israelite practice of Scapegoating to the Crucifixion event. And I think it is an interesting issue to explore in contrast to other interpretation of Jesus’ sacrifice that perhaps don’t see Jesus’ sacrifice as satisfying a need for God in seeing blameless blood spilt and a vicarious substitute offered in order to appease judgement for our sins. What do we do then of these scapegoating explanations in the NT? Do we see them as sincere followers of Christ looking for explanations, and latching on to a cultural understanding of blood sacrifice and vicarious substitution they were already familiar with on the Israelite Day of Atonement? Perhaps mistakenly? I’d be interested to know.