A Better Atonement: The Last Scapegoat

A Better Atonement: The Last Scapegoat March 7, 2012

Every Wednesday during Lent, I’m going to explore an alternatives to the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, the dominant theory of the atonement in my part of the (theological and geographical) world. You can read all of the posts, and my past posts on this topic, here. I’ve got an ebook on the subject as well.

This ebook is available now

The most recent major player on the scene of atonement theories is one developed by an anthropologist/literary critic who is still alive: René Girard and the scapegoat theory. But before getting to the atonement, we need a little background on Girard’s thought.

René Girard is a professor emeritus at Stanford University and one of only 40 members, or immortels, of the Académie Française, France’s highest intellectual honor. Girard’s breakthrough, according to James Alison, is this:

René Girard (Wikicommons)

Professor Girard has made what he takes to be an authentic anthropological discovery…, to wit: that human desire is triangular and mimetic. It is mimetic in that it is to do with imitation; it is triangular in that the transaction is three-cornered: the source (model) which stimulates the desire, the respondent (disciple) in whom the desire is implanted, and the thing (object) then desired.

Girard came to his understanding of mimetic desire by studying literary texts and looking for structural similarities across genres, cultures, and time periods. What he found was that the greater the writer, and the greater the novel, the closer the characters hew to this triangular transaction.

(In fact, Girard has said that his own conversion to Christianity came as a result of reading great fiction. He came to understand that both the characters in the novel, and the novelist, go through a conversion during the story. And that conversion, Girard says, started with Augustine’s Confessions.)

Mimetic desire is this: Human beings want what they see that other human beings have. This is not bad; it is a deep, anthropological truth, rooted in our evolutionary history. But it does lead to Girard’s second great hypothesis: Because human beings want what they see that others have (aka, mimetic desire), that leads to violence. Exhibit A: Cain and Abel.

As human society grew, desire of what the other had grew and snowballed, rivalries developed, and violence increased. Societies needed a release valve to let off the pressure of increasing rivalry and violence, and so the scapegoat mechanism was developed: an innocent, sacred victim is chosen, everyone’s sin is piled on that victim, and that victim is sacrificed, thus relieving the pressure of violence.

According to Girard, this is the foundation of all archaic religion. In Alison’s words,

That is to say, an act of collective fratricide against a victim is foundational to all human cultures, with its being absolutely vital for the cultures so founded that they believe in the culpability of the rejected one (or group), and continue to bolster up this belief by forging prohibitions, myths and rituals.

What the death of Jesus does is reverse this process. The subversion of scapegoating begins in the Hebrew scriptures and finally culminates with Christ’s death, which Girard intriguingly calls a “non-sacrificial atonement.” Here’s Girard, in his own words:

What I have called “bad sacrifice” is the kind of sacrificial religion that prevailed before Christ. It originates because mimetic rivalry threatens the very survival of a community. But through a spontaneous process that also involves mimesis, the community unites against a victim in an act of spontaneous killing. This act unites rivals and restores peace and leaves a powerful impression that results in the establishment of sacrificial religion.

But in this kind of religion, the community is regarded as innocent and the victim is guilty. Even after the victim has been “deified,” he is still a criminal in the eyes of the community (note the criminal nature of the gods in pagan mythology).

But something happens that begins in the Old Testament. There are many stories that reverse this scapegoat process. In the story of Cain and Abel, the story of Joseph, the book of Job, and many of the psalms, the persecuting community is pictured as guilty and the victim is innocent. But Christ, the son of God, is the ultimate “scapegoat”—precisely because he is the son of God, and since he is innocent, he exposes all the myths of scapegoating and shows that the victims were innocent and the communities guilty.

In Christ, God becomes the one who is rejected and expelled. That is, the scapegoat is not one us us who is sacrificed to appease an angry deity. Instead, the deity himself enters our society, becomes the scapegoat, and thereby eliminates the need for any future scapegoats or sacrifices. In an excellent article, James Alison sums up the Girardian understanding of the atonement thusly:

Christianity is a priestly religion which understands that it is God’s overcoming of our violence by substituting himself for the victim of our typical sacrifices that opens up our being able to enjoy the fullness of creation as if death were not.

Sounds pretty good to me. How about you?


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  • Mark Angleton

    I’ve always been intrigued by Girard’s thought, but I have never been able (due to limited funds) to find a good in depth study of it. Do you have any suggestion for books and articles that I should turn to? Good summary, thanks for the post!

    • Mark, if you’re looking for a basic, but good introduction, check out Girard and Theology, by Michael Kirwan (http://amzn.com/0567032272). Not the most in depth, though. I’m quite partial to Robert Hamerton-Kelly’s The Gospel and the Sacred, too (http://amzn.com/0800626699).

    • Hey Mark, I’m no expert but Saved from Sacrifice by Mark Heim was a great introduction/presentation of the Girardian perspective. So good…


      • david james

        Agreed, great intro to a Girardian reading of the atonement.

    • david james
    • I echo the previous comments:

      Saved From Sacrifice

      Girardian Lectionary

      James Alison – Faith Beyond Resentment (the first chapter alone is an excellent primer on mimetic theory and used John 9 as a perfect example of it. this chapter is worth the cost of the book).

      The Trinitarian-Self by Bellinger uses Girard and Kierkegaard and Voegelin. Kinda dry but a good resource.

      To be honest, If you read some of Wink’s Powers the Be, you will get a very subtle take on Girardian thought on the “power of Satan”. Albeit a bit of a twist, but not bad really.

      Anything by Gil Bailie

      As for Girard himself, he is difficult to read in my opinion – just dense. So I would recommend “I See Satan Fall like Lightning” or “Raising Able” and then move to the Girardian Reader.

      I also thought that McLaren was going to take on Girard in a book. I have not come across that yet. (The link below also has a nice video on Girard that is if anything just elegant to watch.

      Here are some slides I found by Mclaren about Girardian thought.

    • Mark Angleton

      Thanks for the ideas and places to look. I have read pieces of “Saved From Sacrifice” and was looking for some more. And I have lots to look into now.

  • Thanks for elevating Girardian thought on this. Been studying him for four years and have found my theological home in it. Nice summary, thank you. Interestingly enough, this understanding of Jesus’ death speaks to conservatives (in that there is a deep understanding of Satan) and liberals (in that it speaks to corupt systems). I have found my community responds well to this thought as well.

    • Thanks, Jason. Do you have an answer to Mark’s question above?

  • A lot of work to put this entry together. New to Girard, then this entry will be hard to absorb, but regardless it is well written.

    I look forward to seeing how Girard’s “scapegoat mechanism” cancels out the belief of the penal substitutionary atonement. I am looking seeing a (both/and) and not an (either/or) here.

  • Steve


    The Girardian Lectionary is indispensable to me.


  • Thank you for including Girard in this series, Tony. One of the most important and underrated scholars, who has a lot to teach us.

  • Tracy

    Thanks so much for this. Today, in fact, I was hoping to go looking for a Cliff Notes version of Girard. This will do nicely.

  • robin

    Enjoying catching up on these.

    Do you feel any alternative one/all are’true’ in the sense that this is what God actually was doing, or are any/all metaphors for what He does relationally?

  • ME

    Sounds good to me

  • “eliminates the need for any future scapegoats or sacrifices”

    That is a key element, and one that doesn’t need a different definition of atonement. Unfortunately it is a hard sell for priests because it puts them out of business.

    • Steve

      How so? Pretty sure I disagree.

      • How so of what? What part did you not understand?

        • Steve

          Putting priests out of business. And I understand just fine, thanks.

          • Most of the Catholic rituals are based on what you need to do each week to stay right with God, so you won’t go to hell. If “it is finished” as Jesus said, then that should not be necessary. Likewise, any denomination’s justification that you “should” go to church on Sunday is suspect. I understand priests/pastors do other things, but those roles could be filled in other ways. The business of church is changing, and people not believing they need the sacraments is a big part of that.

          • Carl

            On this I agree with you Lausten. Too many evangelical churches fall into the same trap as the Catholics, thinking they have to DO something to earn God’s approval.

          • Steve

            Rene Girard has opened my eyes. Both in seeing scripture anew and what his philosophy brings to the crucifixion.

            Even so, I look to my Episcopal priest for many things and can’t imagine this philosophy being at odds with priests’ service nor putting him out of a job.

            I believe the liturgy and said rituals are designed to bring us closer to God. No, we don’t need them, but they do have a purpose far, far beyond mere guilt and shame.

            These are not mutually exclusive concepts. A priest is nothing more than a man with a vocation; a conduit for illustrating scripture, pastoral care, study, administering the eucharist, etc.

    • Chris Haw

      Girard is a Catholic, and appears to find his thought–well summarized here by Tony, thanks–consonant with a priest offering the “(anti-)sacrifice of Mass.” The word for the bread, host, after all, means “victim.”

  • Gareth Higgins

    Thanks for the concise summation of Girard on scapegoating – I’m convinced his work needs to be repeatedly expressed in vast ranges of diverse means and media. Walter Wink’s Powers trilogy was the starting place for me; and I know that James Alison has a new project emerging that will bring Girardian thought to a new audience. I really appreciate these Lent posts Tony.

  • Buck Eschaton

    That last link you have listed from James Alison is a great article regarding the Atonement. Very good, should be required reading.

    Background for Alison’s Atonement article is not only Girard but also Margaret Barker. See http://www.margaretbarker.com/Papers/Atonement.pdf

  • Jack R. Baker

    Michael Hardin has a wonderful book (which can be read along with a group study guide), _The Jesus Driven Life_, that works through the way we read Christ in light of Girard’s mimetic theory. Girard himself endorses it: http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Driven-Life-Reconnecting-Humanity/dp/1450709451/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1331155444&sr=8-1

    Thanks for your post.

  • Tony.

    thanks for posting this. i agree with you… it all sounds pretty good to me. although it requires a small paradigm shift and a little bit or re-wiring to help understand it when taking these ideas and moving them into the biblical narrative.

    check out this short film i came across online on Rene Girard about a year ago. some pretty amazing shots. (i didn’t make the film nor do I know who did. but it is solid) if you have about 5min to spare it is worth watching.


  • Buck Eschaton

    It does take a shift of understanding, but it involves a lot of really good reading. Start with Girard’s “Deceit, Desire and the Novel” and with that read Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Cervantes and Stendahl and Proust if you have the time (I haven’t so far). Then move on to “Theater of Envy” and with that Shakespeare and then leap into the awesome “Violence and the Sacred”, “The Scapegoat” and “Things Hidden…”. So much good reading.

  • Jordan

    There are a couple good interviews with Girard on Entitled Opinions. One on mimetic desire, the other on the scapegoat. He also talks about Jesus as the end to the scapegoat.

  • I hate to keep harping on this, Tony, but the problem with this blog series is that it insinuates that there are problems with penal substitution–theological, moral, sociological (especially in this post)–without actually saying what they are. In fact, it appears that the less specific the objection is, the more force it has. I’ll say it again, this series would have meant something if you would have voiced your own understanding of PSA before proposing “Better Atonements.” Perhaps it is because you do hold some theological credentials and have a reputation in theological matters that readers tend to defer to you, finding these “better atonements” compelling. The sad thing is, you haven’t produced an argument for a position against PSA because you haven’t presented PSA in the first place.

    On to Girard, his notion that the NT Gospels “replaces the violent God of the past” illustrates the difficulty he has incorporating the OT stories of violence and sacrifice into a coherent theological model. He doesn’t present a hermeneutic in which to understand the very metanarrative he is advocating. What he does is turn the nonviolence of the cross into the ultimate hermeneutical key and rejects anything that doesn’t seem to fit this hermeneutic as a vestige of mythology of mimetic rivalry and of the scapegoat mentality.

    The biggest problem for Girard’s theory is that he sees the redemptive/salvific value of the cross in its display of mimetic violence, not because it displays God’s love. According to Girard, the cross saves when human beings come to see the scapegoat mechanism operating in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and when they become aware of the violent legacy of the mimetic process. This is a typical of a theological liberalism that views its salvation knowledge (a la moral example theory). The transforming power of the cross of Christ is lost in Girard’s model, mainly because he’s lost the NT’s emphasis on sin and its consequences in relation to God (i.e. the whole reason for atonement in the OT and the atonement of Christ in the NT).

    • Phil Miller

      I don’t know what Tony’s thought process is, but there are ways to show that an alternative theory is better than simply attacking the original head-on. Actually, I find arguments built on the premise of out-flanking your ideological opponent more convincing in the long run simply because it allows the conversation to go where it needs to go rather than simply being reactionary.

      My question is why is PSA theory sacrosanct? It’s not explicitly put forth in any of the creeds, and the version that is most popular today is a relatively new development compared to the history of the church. From my perspective, it seems that the onus for evidence is on the other side.

      • I’m with you, Phil. I don’t see any reason why I have to take the bait from Casey and others and always talk about PSA before turning to other theories. PSA does not deserve it’s position as the beginning and end of every conversation about the atonement.

      • Casey


        You don’t have to take the bait, I’m just not certain as to what you are denying. We could both be in agreement about a great many things, but I don’t know what you consider to be the best/worst of the theory. You could be denying what we both would deny concerning PSA.

        Phil, PSA is not sacrosanct. There are valid criticisms for certain expressions of the theory. I would advocate, however, that the best proponents of the theory articulate what the scriptures clearly teach concerning God, mankind, sin, and salvation. This isn’t to deny other theories or metaphors present in scripture, I take those too. PSA, in my understanding, is not the only theory of the atonement that is valid; however, it is the only one that does justice to the whole of scripture while making sense of the other metaphors/models of atonement. Also, are there any creeds which support Girard’s mimetic scapegoat theory?

        • Phil Miller

          The creeds don’t speak to the the “hows” of atonement in any real way. I don’t think there’s any single metaphor captures the depth and breadth of what happened in the cross and resurrection, including PSA. For the record, my problem with PSA has to do with the “P”. I’ve not heard any compelling explanation as to why it is the Father punishing Christ. There is certainly an element of substitution involved, but I don’t find it nearly as mechanistic as staunch PSA supporters do.

          • Casey

            Phil, I’m in agreement with you that the creeds do not speak to the particulars of the varying theories of atonement. You made mention of the creeds, so I responded. There are a plethora of metaphors and models used in scripture to capture the gravitas of what happened on the cross of Christ, every proponent of PSA would agree. The compelling explanation of the “penal” aspect comes directly from the scriptures (of which there are too many to cite). God’s Son bore God’s curse in my place on the cross. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us–for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree'” (Gal. 3.13). Sin has consequences, this is where we understand the point of the “P”. Reading “Pierced for Our Transgressions” would be a good place to start for a better understanding of PSA.

          • Phil Miller

            It’s still somewhat of a leap to say that the curses associated with the Torah are God doling out punishment. They’re are some verses that could be made to show that case as it specifically relates to Israel, but how do the curses associated with the Torah become universalized to the whole human race?

            In the Gospels, Jesus is shown as essentially doing what Israel could not do. Where they failed, He succeeded. But in order for the covenantal requirements of the Torah to actually be met, it did require the curses being dealt with. Being the representative of the faithful Israel, Jesus steps in and takes these upon Himself. It’s not so much a punishment from the Father, but moreso a mechanism built into the covenant. If I get electrocuted by touching the third rail of the subway, I’m not being punished by the person who designed it – I’m just bearing the brunt of something built into the system. If someone stops me at the last minute, they take the blow for me in an act of substitution, but no one is really being punished.

            There are a lot of different ways to look at it. I like what Andrew Perriman has to say about it here: http://www.opensourcetheology.net/node/1026
            He affirms a version of PSA but in a very limited, narrative context. It’s a bit different than what I wrote above, but I think his take on it makes sense. It removes the idea that Jesus is stopping the Father from destroying us (something I actually heard John Piper say with my own ears, btw!).

          • Casey

            Phil & Tony,

            Let me briefly sketch this out and see where we may differ.
            (1) I think we all agree that it is important to do justice to all of the scriptural language. Together they give us complementary perspective on the cross, which are all important if we are to understand the cross correctly.
            (2) I think we all agree that each metaphor highlights a different aspect of human need. And together they stress our incredible need and our inability to save ourselves. In addition, each metaphor emphasizes that God took the saving initiative in his love. He is the planner, author, and initiator of salvation – grace.
            (3) I am not convinced, though could be mistaken, that we all agree that each metaphor plainly teaches that God’s saving work was achieved through blood shedding, that is, the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ. All the benefits of Christ are ours because Jesus stood in our place as our substitute and representative. It is ours because Jesus did it on our behalf. It is ours because he did it in union with us. He took our wretchedness, sin and death, while, in faith, we receive from him his righteousness and life. I stand with this statement. Do you?
            (4) This is, I believe, where we differ. The penal aspect that speaks of the fact that in order to save us, Christ had to endure our penalty, take our punishment that we rightly deserve. Because God’s holy and righteous character have been maligned and his holy standards have been broken, the penalty of our sin is death (Rom. 6:23; Mt. 25:46). I think we may also differ on our understanding of substitution, though we probably each claim some form of it. I understand it to speak of the fact that Christ paid this penalty in our place (vicarious). The Greek prepositions – anti and huper – both carry substitutionary connotations in the NT. Christ willingly, in perfect obedience to God, submitted to the just penalty which we deserved, receiving it on our behalf, and in our place, so that we can be set free (2 Cor. 5:21). Cf. 1 Pet. 3:18; Gal. 3:13; Heb. 9:28; Lk. 22:20; Rom. 8:32.

          • Casey

            I hate to be so lengthy, but pardon me while work through it this way as well…

            Q1: What did Christ’s death accomplish?
            A1: It redeemed us to God.
            Q2: How did it do that?
            A2: By being a blood sacrifice.
            Q3: How did that sacrifice have its redemptive affect?
            A3: By reconciliation, removing the enmity between God and ourselves.
            Q4: How did Christ’s death make peace?
            A4: By being a propitiation, turning back God’s wrath.
            Q5: How did the cross have this propitiatory affect?
            A5: He acted as our substitute by paying the penalty we deserved to pay.

            Criticisms and Responses
            C1: The diversity of the scriptures does not lead one to view one theory over the other.
            R1: All language is complimentary, but there is a matter of first importance and the scriptures lay out the greatest problem—our sin before a holy God.
            C2: This presents us with a very harsh view of God (i.e. divine child abuse).
            R2: Propitiation is a biblical concept. The wrath of God is a biblical truth. The Son who gives his life is the very God of God. God propitiates himself.
            C3: This is a mere legal transaction.
            R3: It is the defeat of satan, sin, and death that reconciles us to God.
            C4: God can forgive us without a payment for sin.
            R4: This is the opposite of the scriptural witness to the atonement. God cannot forgive us without dealing with the sin.
            C5: The cross is not necessary; God could have chosen a different option.
            R5: Scripture does speak of the necessity of Christ’s cross, for atonement has to be done. The plan of God presents no other way.

          • Phil Miller

            Well, yes, it’s the punishment aspect where you lose me. I don’t believe the Biblical narrative as a whole presents God as a being who is primarily concerned with maintaining His honor, getting what is due Him, etc. If anything, the narrative points to God as being almost opposite that – He continually goes out of His way to be with those He loves. This love brings Him to the ultimate point of self-emptying and debasement – death on a cross.

            So, no I don’t see the cross as a divine transaction, as much as it is the final statement of God’s willingness to go the furthest lengths to reconcile us to Him. To me, it seems as if in the scheme you put forth up there, sin is the problem being dealt with. The way I see it, though, sin isn’t itself the problem – it’s a symptom. Our real problem is alienation from God, or a broken relationship with Him. So by becoming man, and by experiencing death, and ultimately resurrection, Christ enables us to to do the same. Our salvation is more participatory, not transactional. And this why we partake in sacraments. Through baptism, we declare we partake in Christ’s death and resurrection. Through the Eucharist we partake in the life that comes through His blood (life was said to be in the blood in ANE cultures). Salvation isn’t simply God declaring us to be forgiven (that is part of it, though), it’s God healing us and reconciling us, enabling us to be what we were created to be.

    • Scot Miller

      I am skeptical that any particular theological formulation, even those widely held for generations, ever has the final word on an issue like atonement. Examining alternative perspectives on atonement may not only bring into focus aspects of atonement that PSA overlooks, but it may bring to light problems or difficulties with PSA. (I think the alternative theories of atonement are especially helpful in challenging the defective concept of God assumed by the PSA theory.)

    • Casey, I have, in the past, written extensively about the problems with PSA and with the doctrine of Original Sin. Those posts will be recapitulated in an ebook on this subject that I’ll release next week. There — for the price of $1.99! — you’ll be able to read my criticism of PSA.

      • Casey

        Looking forward to it!

      • AE

        Seriously? $1.99?

        • You think it should be more?

          Or less?

    • Steve


      The love is in the forgiveness. Our hand has been exposed in the execution of an innocent man, who then forgives unconditionally.

      The trouble with PSA is that it embodies the very thing from which we need to be delivered! *Of course* we would like there to be some sort of transaction or debt; *of course* we would like there to be some sense of “getting even.” *Of course* we would like to think of God as some vengeful cowboy. PSA is just such a worldly, projected farce!

      This is our curse. We are trapped in a state of selfishness and violence and retribution. We cannot escape it unless we recognize the endless love of the victim, bounding toward us with total forgiveness.

      Just think about it: we have quite literally glorified an atrocious murder.

    • Steve

      God dealt with sin and it’s consequences way back in the garden. We’re dead. We die. Kicked out. Thus begins the long, slow road to recovery and getting the family back together, all the while stuck in sin like wet cement. What do think of the notion that we are punished *by* our sins as opposed to *for* our sins?

      I’ll lay out the problem with PSA, Casey: it’s cruel. And unloving. Void of mercy. It advocates the torture and murder of an innocent man.

      And that’s about it for me… a God of mercy, love and forgiveness would not do that. We did.

      • Steve,

        PSA is not cruel, unloving, nor void of mercy. It certainly doesn’t advocate the torture and murder of an innocent man. Quite the contrary on all counts.

        First, Jesus willingly went to the cross with full-knowledge of what it would entail. This is abundantly clear in all four Gospels. Inflicting torture and pain upon an unwilling victim or someone who didn’t fully understand what was happening would be cruel, not PSA.

        Second, Jesus died to bring glory to himself (Jn 17.1; Phil 2.8-9; Heb 2.9), to save sinners (Rom 5.8; 1 Cor 15.3; 1 Pet 3.18), and glorify his Father. How does what you claim of PSA–devoid of mercy, cruel, unloving–square with the teaching of scripture on this account? Whatever may be true of the violence on the cross of Christ, any attempt to make PSA out to be the theory that victimizes Jesus is flatly mistaken.

        Did the Father willingly cause his Son to suffer? Could you believe in a God who would willingly cause suffering to himself? Perhaps we should let Isaiah 53 speak on our behalf: “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all,” and “it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.”

        Girard’s work is thoroughly unbiblical at key points. Just to name one point, his understanding of the atonement discredits the entire OT. His deficient understanding of the OT sacrificial system, seeing it as a sympton of a violent and socially dysfunctional society, cuts against the clear biblical teaching that it was God’s appointed means to atone for the sins of his people.

        Your misrepresentation of PSA leads you to claim that a God of mercy, love, and forgiveness would not do the very things that God Himself claims to do in the very scriptures that reveal who He is and what He has done. At worst, you completely miss the point of the atoning work of God in Christ. At best, you wind up attempting PR work for God where he doesn’t perceive a problem.

        • Phil Miller

          There are several places in the OT(Isaiah 11:11-14, Hosea 6:6, Psalm 40:7-9 to name a few) where God explicitly says He doesn’t want sacrifices. What He actually wants from people is their hearts. It’s also worth noting that the Israelites were surrounded by people to whom human sacrifice was the norm. By institutionalizing animal sacrifices, God is actually reducing the amount of religiously ordained violence in His people compared to others.

          It’s really not about doing PR work. It’s about talking about the texts in their proper historical context.

          • Steve

            Thank you, Phil. I am not nearly as eloquent in my response. Which was to Casey btw.

          • Phil,

            I agree with you that God wants the hearts of his people to be inclined toward him. He desires a vibrant, living faith for his people, not a dead, ritualistic, idolatrous people. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The OT propitiatory offerings were divinely instituted and prescribed as the means by which the sinner might be forgiven. “The life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar…(Lv. 17:11). The sacrifices for Israel were not a human arrangement, but a divine gift. Of course the sacrifices can be abused, but the same is true with the sacrifice of Christ. The source for both OT and NT sacrifice is the love of God; God gave his Son to die for sinners. 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.”

            I’m all for historically informed exegesis. We can totally agree on this. 🙂

        • Steve

          Yes. It is. Let me guess: sola scriptura? Inerrancy of scripture? I don’t buy it and we simply have very divergent views on this point. Some people are comfortable with “You know, this might not be true,” some are not. So be it.

          The Father and Son are one, yes? Jesus is God. And as such reflects the true nature of God. God is a loving, compassionate, forgiving, healing force. And this is the imitation I strive for. All this emphasis on the cross risks eclipsing the teaching of Christ: love one another.

          In your view, who demands this penalty be repaid?

          • Steve,
            God did. And the Good News is that, “what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8.3-4).

            The emphasis on the cross comes from Christ himself, the NT witnesses, the testimony of the entire OT, church history, and personal experience. The emphasis on the cross flows from the heart of the gospel and is the impetus and compelling power for obeying the Great Commandment.

            Also, let us not forget that substitution is not a metaphor for what God did; it is what he actually did. God actually chose to put himself in the place of sinful men, to do for them what they could not do for themselves. The self-substitution of God on man’s behalf is not one metaphor among others, but the core reality that presents itself through a variety of scriptural metaphors and analogies, each one expressing the vast and rich reality of all that God achieved by that self-giving, self-substituting act. The concept of substitution lies at the heart of both sin and salvation because it is aligned with the cross. For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives which belong to God alone; God accepts penalties which belong to man alone.

            In Christ’s atoning work, God remedies humanity’s untenable situation: in his mercy, he provides a way to stop the spread of humanity’s collective sin and indeed “carry it off” as the scapegoat carried off Israel’s collective sin on the Day of Atonement. In that sense, Christ’s priestly sacrifice propitiates our sin and returns us in effect to an “original” state, equivalent to our first parents. Yet Christ’s sacrifice does not return us to this “original” state and then simply leave us to our own devices (Girard fails here). In addition to being an propitiatory sacrifice for sin, Christ’s death and subsequent resurrection also constitute a sacrifice of “first fruits.” In him, death is transformed from being merely the “wages of sin” to the means of new life. His resurrection offers the sign and the surety that God will complete his purposes for humanity; mankind will not be ultimately deterred or destroyed by death. Indeed, Christ’s sacrificial offering of his body and blood establishes a new basis for human communion and fellowship with God. In sum, a full and biblically based understanding of Christ’s sacrifice will not construe it only in a negative way as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin, but also in a positive way as the God-given means for humanity’s personal transformation and restored relation.

            Does this sound like the PSA to which you object? I’m curious at this point.

          • Steve

            Yes. Though it may be quite some time before I am able to parse these thoughts here. They just don’t make any sense to me. Sorry. Maybe a little less proof texting and a little more speaking from the heart.

            I object to any theory that gives warrant to violence; to any theory that puts conditions on forgiveness; to any theory that lets us off the hook for taking personal responsibility; to any theory that murders the innocent while the guilty go free; to any theory that puts sacrifice before mercy; to any theory that sanctifies retribution and vengeance and I especially object to any theory that is not born of total, boundless love.

            This is a bankrupt theory of man born of man’s bloodthirsty desire to make someone pay! This wretched theory means nothing to the condemned, the suffering, the broken, the forgotten in our midst who need hear no more of God’s imaginary wrath.

            There. I took the bait. God bless you.

        • Buck Eschaton

          I just thought I’d add in a drive-by sort of way that the parts of Isaiah 53 that are said to support PSA can and should be translated differently…and even if we want to translate it in the PSA-friendly way. It brings up a whole another problem. Is Jesus the same Lord as is mentioned in the Isaiah text? I think one can argue that he certainly is. Jesus is Lord of both the New and Old testaments.

          • Buck,

            You lost me somewhere in the first sentence.

            Care to clarify?

          • ben w.

            Casey, I’ll try a hand at clarifying Buck’s comment, as I understand it:

            “I just thought I’d add (in a drive-by sort of way) that the parts of Isaiah 53 that are said to support PSA should be translated differently. Even if one were to translate Isaiah 53 in the PSA-friendly way, it brings up a whole another problem. Is Jesus the same Lord as is mentioned in the Isaiah text? I think one can argue that he certainly is. Jesus is Lord of both the New and Old testaments.”

            Buck, if I’ve understood you correctly, my response is two-fold:
            1) Can you give any justification of why Isaiah 53 should NOT be taken to teach that the suffering servant of the Lord would atone for the sins of Israel through (at least in part) penalty-substitution? I think Dr. Peter Gentry has given a powerful defense of just such an exegesis here: http://ow.ly/9zFzS . If you think there is a better exegetical treatment of Isaiah 53 that refutes Dr. Gentry’s conclusions, please provide it so we can check it out.

            2) I’m less sure that I understand your point about Jesus being the “Lord” and how that applies. Of course, I agree Jesus is Lord, and His person and work is foreshadowed and described in various parts of the Old and elucidated in the New. Yet it does seem consistent that whenever the OT authors speak of the LORD (“YHWH”), they are speaking of God the Father or the Godhead as a whole. I can’t think of a reference when YHWH is used to reference the Son particularly. (Think Psalm 110: “the LORD says to my Lord”, with NT authors clearly see “LORD” (yhwh) as referring to the Father and “Lord” (adonai) referring to Christ).
            And speaking of the atonement, this precise point, that the Father and Son are unified – is essential! It is NOT that the Father is a separate “other” who is violently abusing the poor Son, but it is a personal self-sacrifice within the Godhead. Within the Trinity, God is both “the Just and the Justifier of the one who has faith in Christ” (Romans 3:26). Within Himself, God is upholding the system of Justice he described and instituted in the Old Testament, and absorbing that wrath upon Himself. This is one more marvel of the Trinity! PSA, understood within its trinitarian context, does not condone violence upon another but advocates for the self-sacrificial love of oneself.

            Buck, if I’ve misunderstood any point you’re making, feel free to point out my misunderstanding.

          • Phil Miller

            I didn’t read the 28 page paper you put up, but the thing that I think is frustrating in this whole conversation about PSA is that the scholarly understanding of it seems to not be the same as what the man on the street understanding is. The colloquial understanding of it creates a picture of almost a good cop/bad cop relationship within the Godhead where the Father wants to destroy sinners, but the Son wants to sacrifice Himself for them. And, yes, I have met many people who do have an understanding like that. It’s because of that type of thinking many Christians grow up with a nagging fear that God is constantly angry at them, and that they need to be terrified of the other shoe dropping.

            PSA is not the Gospel. There are ways in which a substitutionary scheme can be presented and still be faithful to the text, but in most discussions it isn’t. Maybe I just grew up around particularly dumb people, and my experience is different than others. I’ve been around Christians from all denominations, and my experiences with the particular doctrine remain troublesome. I believe we need to get back to telling the whole story of the Gospel, not just distilling it to one particular legal metaphor.

          • Buck Eschaton

            Basically what I’m saying is that if this text is only a foretelling a of future event then who is the Lord in this text. I’m saying that the Lord in Isaiah is Jesus. Then if this is true, which I believe it is, then how are the transactional parts of PSA maintained. In this text the Lord is the Son of God. In the Gospels it is no longer the Servants that purify the people and bears/forgives and intercepts the wrath that has been generated by the jealousies/hatreds/idolatries between them, it is the Lord Himself who comes to do this. We must now all become Servants to each other and bear/forgive each others sins as our Lord has done and is doing for us. We must love one another or die (because nuclear war is the ultimate wrath). After the Lord has come and fulfilled the Atonement ritual there will no longer be scapegoats to intercept our wrath, that we can blame and deflect our wrath/sins/debts upon, we are all called to be Servants and carry each others sins/debts.
            Is the Lord in Isaiah different than the Lord in the New Testament?
            I’ll try to say it directly it is our Sins. Our hatreds, our jealousies, murderous desires, lusts, idolatries, resentments, etc that directly caused the death of Christ. It wasn’t God the Father who was somehow deeply offended and really wanted kill people Himself that caused the death of Christ, it wasn’t that he needed to kill large amounts of human beings that Christ had to be punished. No it was God the Father who loved us so much that He sent his Son, Yahweh, the Lord to absorb our sins, to intercept the wrath that breaks out between us, to restore the bonds between as Isaiah says “by his joining us together we are healed.” It is our sins that directly killed and crucified the Lord.
            Basically Jesus is sacrificing Himself, as the Servant did. Essentially saying kill me, instead of killing yourselves.
            See Margaret Barker and James Alison if you want to understand Atonement.
            Not really much more to say, than what they have said, other than to flush the details. Yes, there are many details.

          • Buck Eschaton

            Yes, Jesus is our substitute. Without scapegoats/Servants, without the Lord who has come to intercept the wrath that is generated by us and between us, we will inevitably be destroyed by blood-feud or nuclear war. All sin leads to murder. After Jesus we can no longer shove our sins onto an innocent 3rd party. We must bear/forgive/carry each others sins, and hand them to the Lord, who will take them away, or we will literally destroy ourselves.
            Jesus: bring all your sins to me, unite in lovingkindness and mercy around me. If you do not do this you will do die (meaning that you will kill each other, because scapegoats that take your sins, that you can offload your sins/violence onto as was the basis of all primitive religions, will no longer be possible). You must become Sons of God/Servants to each other, imitate Christ and bear/forgive each others sins. Or you will go to Gehenna (meaning that you will go there of your own free will), Gehenna being the place of human sacrifice, where people went to kill their children and to commit human sacrifice in order to deflect the wrath that has been generated because of their idolaltries. That constantly burning fire that is never quenched with scapegoats and the endless murder of the innocents.

        • Buck Eschaton

          Regarding “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all,” see this:
          So if I am to believe Desiring God Ministries the PSA contention is that the Lord/Yahweh/Jesus (all the same person of the trinity) is laying the iniquity of all of us on the Lord/Yahweh/Jesus. God the Father has nothing to do with the PSA transaction. So maybe Isaiah 53 does not say what PSA wants it to say.

  • RD


    Comment sections aren’t great places to get into lengthy discussion so I’ll try to make my reply brief. I think that PSA creates a great deal of psychological dissonance for people. It sends a couple of highly conflicting messages: 1. humans are created in God’s image vs. humans are “worms” and objects of divine wrath; 2. God is love vs. God is vengeful, jealous, filled with wrath that must be assuaged in some sacrificial way. Human beings have psychological difficulties in trying to process and live with conflicting “truths” (think of a parent who sends “mixed messages” to their kids). PSA is psychologically abusive on many levels.

    • Jonathan


      But wouldn’t the Bible itself be “psychologically abusive” for the same reason. The Bible portrays man as made in the image of God, or as mere dust, perishing like grass. The Bible portrays God as loving, but also as jealous, vengeful, and wrathful (I don’t say in equal measure). Seems like these sorts of paradoxes are things that we just live with, and certainly don’t constitute abuse. That’s a rather silly thing to say.

  • Jason Derr

    In my own book ‘Towards a Theopoetic of the Cross’ I develop the idea via James Allison that Christ on the cross is not a substitute for violence but takes the violence of humanity and, in resurrection, steps forward to reveal the dangers of Sacred Violence. Violence then is not required by God but in any way – to appease Gods wrath or to become the outcast – but is instead the result of human brokenness. Salvation is not enacted by death on a cross but in the resurected Christ forgiving us of our violence and asking us to find another way.

    • Jason,
      Christ was never put forth by God as a substitute for “violence” or to reveal the dangers of “Sacred Violence.” I’m all for creativity, but don’t get more creative than the scriptures allow. And don’t miss the forest for the trees.

      I’m all about Christ forgiving and showing his people another way. Grace does indeed reign in his kingdom, but a grace reigning apart from righteousness is not only unrealistic; it is inconceivable. Propitiation presupposes the wrath and displeasure of God and the purpose of propitiation is the removal of this displeasure. If there is ‘a righteous anger’ of God, and the New Testament is clear that there is, then it cannot be ignored in the process of forgiveness.

      The penal substitutionary death of Christ makes us look upon the holy wrath of God toward sin, while simultaneously giving us a glimpse of his unfathomable love and grace toward us.

      • Timothy

        Casey, you are way to literal and fundamentalistic in your interpretation of scripture to continue this conversation. Do yourself a favor and stop trying to teach everyone that the error of their ways.

  • Is the difference here that for scapegoating the community excoriates the goat, whereas for penal substitution, God does it? If the community does it, isn’t that Pelagian? Water here is too deep for me, clearly.

  • Evelyn

    Girard’s theory reads more like an explanation for how humans react to the crucifixion than an image of God’s possible purpose in allowing the crucifixion to occur. He makes some observations about the mimetic behavior that is common to humans and then transfers the negative emotions that result from our inability to have what we can’t have into a desire to scapegoat. While this may be an apt description of why the crucifixion is appealing to many in a religious sense, it still allows us to feed and justify negative behaviors. Scapegoating Christ on a regular basis instead of doing away with our covetousness of what our neighbors have by accepting God’s bounty without jealousy doesn’t bring us any closer to God. The scapegoating stymies the internal transformations that are necessary to bring us closer to God and is, in effect, a negative atonement.

    It isn’t enough that Christ’s death put an end to physical sacrifices once and for all. If we still believe that he was a sacrifice then we are symbolically and spiritually making those sacrifices and feeding Yahweh (instead of Abba) on a regular basis. This isn’t Christian – it’s Jewish.

    • Steve

      I believe you are mis-interpreting Girard. Christ is not a scapegoat. He exposes the scapegoat mechanism and in so doing illustrates that there is no such thing as justified (or sacred) violence in any form. None.

      There is no sacrifice in the crucifixion. It is not something that God has allowed nor demanded. Christ moves freely.

      Our only hope is to imitate this example of unconditional love and forgiveness. Only then will our provenance of covetousness and jealousy melt away.

      • Right, Steve, he does say that. But it also seems to me that he’s saying that Christ acts as the ultimate scapegoat and thus shows how empty the rite of sacrifice really is. So Jesus both is and is not a scapegoat…

        • Steve

          Perhaps. Worth remembering, however, is that Christ self-sacrificed. No thing cosmically demanded it. In that sense, he is unlike anything we may have heretofore – nor have since – encountered as a scapegoat.

          The “is and is not” situation is further complicated when we regard the concept of Trinity. Fairly, it is also very difficult to *not* think of the crucifixion in worldly terms.

          It is God’s best move.

  • Jonathan

    I’m pretty ignorant of Girard, so you’ll have to forgive me for a stupid question. I’m wondering how Girard deals with God instituting sacrifices in the OT. If the sacrifice model is a result of (bad?) human mimetic desire, why does God tell people to do it?

    • Steve

      Not a stupid question at all.

      The OT is a long, gut-wrenching narrative of God untangling himself from human idolatry and violence. Not an easy task! I would simply answer your question with another question: Did God really do that?

      One of the hardest – but most crucial – things to accept in this new way of thinking is that scripture is not the in-errant word of God. It is but a secondary witness to the true word: Jesus Christ.

      And in Him there is no darkness. At all.

      Here is a good essay to get you started: Must God Be Violent?


    • Jeremy

      I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I
      brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and
      this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be
      your God, and you will be My people; and you will walk in all the way
      which I command you, that it may be well with you.’
      24“Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and in the stubbornness of their evil heart, and went backward and not forward.
      the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt until this day,
      I have sent you all My servants the prophets, daily rising early and
      sending them.
      26“Yet they did not listen to Me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck; they did more evil than their fathers.

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  • Ancius

    Tony Jones, I appreciate this introduction.

    The idea of the scapegoating mechanism strikes me as insightful, but the story of Jesus’ crucifixion doesn’t appear to me to be a paradigmatic case of scapegoating. Jesus’ crucifixion seems rather to be a case of the removal of a threat to the established powers, which strikes me as substantively different from the scapegoating mechanism. The latter, but not the former, seeks to remove infighting by the construction of a common enemy or by finding someone upon whom to pin all the blame and resentment now driving the conflict.

    If, however, Jesus’ crucifixion isn’t particularly illustrative of the scapegoating mechanism, then it is difficult to see what, on the Girardian account, the crucifixion was supposed to accomplish. I don’t understand how the crucifixion could, on that account, be God’s way of “overcoming of our violence by substituting himself for the victim.”

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  • Jeremy

    This is why and how God forgives sin and saves…


    This is the kind of God we are dealing with here… a God who need not
    be appeased in any way whatsoever. God needs NOTHING, not a damn thing,
    in order to forgive. He forgives because He wants to and because He
    loves us.

    Stop projecting human ideas of justice on to God. Man is not
    all-powerful. God is all-powerful and all-knowing. Man’s justice is to
    take something equal away from the offender. God can HEAL the offended
    AND the offender and RESTORE what was lost. That is Divine Justice.

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  • Matthew Pings

    I read the first two chapters so far and I agree with your statement that Christ was fully man and fully God and that the resurrection gives power and meaning to his death and that it was more than just “I told you so”, but I don’t think I agree with some of your reasoning. For example, you said when Jesus was tempted in the desert, he wasn’t cognizant of his Divinity. I can think of several Scriptures that suggest otherwise: Matthew 3:13-17, John the Baptist questions Jesus about who needs to be baptized by whom and after Jesus’ baptism, the descent of the Holy Spirit and Voice from Heaven. Even his cousin knew who He was, I doubt He was that clueless. Luke 2:49, the boy Jesus told his parents who were looking for him that he must be in his Father’s house. If he was not aware of being the Son of God, he wouldn’t have referred to the temple as his Father’s house or being about His Father’s business, (since his human father was a carpenter). If you look at the reasoning Satan used to tempt Jesus, he focused on Jesus’ divinity, to get him to fall. “Turn these stones into bread, you know you could easily do it… throw yourself off the temple, you know you won’t be hurt…. Bow before me and you can skip all this humiliation and crucifixion for these ungrateful people and you can have your kingdom now.” Throughout the Gospels He often told his disciples his time had not come and was always moving towards a very specific purpose that he knew God had sent him to accomplish. I think it is clear he was well aware of that right from the beginning.

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