Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Some Thoughts on the Atonement IV 

I am actually going to be leaving for holiday early tomorrow now. I thought I'd rather have this finished before I left, so here goes:—
Having presented a few thoughts on some different aspects of the atonement, I would now like to turn to the issue of scapegoating. Reading a couple of the works of René Girard over the last few months has been quite stimulating in a number of respects and I would highly recommend his work to anyone wanting to study this subject in more detail. I only have a short time in which to give a few brief notes on this aspect of the atonement before I leave for holiday, so I will merely give some sketchy and suggestive notes on thoughts that Girard has stimulated for me on this subject.
As I have been reading Girard I have become increasingly aware of the fact that Israel is the scapegoat nation. The OT almost invariably tells the story from the perspective of the victims of the scapegoating mechanism. Covenant history is drawn around vindicated scapegoats: Joseph, Job, Jeremiah, etc. In fact, in the Exodus narrative the whole nation plays the role of scapegoat, being formed around Moses — the chief scapegoat. The nation is not merely permitted to leave Egypt; they are driven out and expelled (Exodus 6:1; 12:39). I wonder how much weight we should on all of this. Israel as the true people of God is continually defined over against those who would kill their brothers and bury their guilt. We see this in the cases of Cain (Genesis 4:8), Ishmael (Genesis 27:17-18), Esau (Genesis 27:41; Obadiah 9-10), Joseph’s brother’s (Genesis 37:18), Edom (Amos 1:10-11; Obadiah 8-10) and Tyre (Amos 1:9).
Later on in the covenant narrative, apostate Israel seems to take the role that was earlier occupied by the Egyptians, when they cast out Jesus the Messiah. The NT writers appreciate that the Jews that reject Christ are the inheritors of the role marked out by Cain and others as the seed of the serpent. In some manner or other, Israel consummates the demonic principle of the murder of the innocent (Matthew 23:34-35; John 8:39-44). Jerusalem is exposed to be the city, above all the other cities of the world, founded upon innocent blood (Revelation 11:8; 18:24). Jesus takes on the role of the righteous victim. However, He is no mere victim of circumstances, but one who gives Himself willingly. The whole judgment on fratricidal humanity is drawn onto Him.
In the past I used to believe that the unjust motives of the Jews and Romans in putting Christ to death were largely unimportant for any doctrine of the atonement. I am increasingly having doubts about this opinion. After seeing something of the manner in which the scapegoating mechanism works throughout the Gospels, I am wondering whether the unjust motives and the lies behind the Jews’ and the Romans’ crucifixion of Christ are absolutely essential to what the cross actually achieved. In other words, the atonement could not have achieved what it achieved were a faithful Israel with a faithful priesthood to present Jesus to God as a human sin offering on their behalf. The injustice of the crucifixion was in some sense necessary in order for Christ to truly set the world to rights.
The whole of history is a great heavenly legal battle. The Accuser seeks to unjustly lay charges against the people of God (e.g. Job 2:3). Satan is the one who endeavours to make the seed of the woman into the scapegoat and the expulsion of this scapegoat as the foundation of the city of man. Satan is the father of lies and the one who was a murderer from the beginning. He is the one who inspires the murder on which the city of man is founded and he is the one who buries this murdered victim in the tomb of myth and lie.
Following the cross the Accuser of the brethren is finally cast down, his lawsuit against the people of God thrown out of court. The charge that was laid against God’s elect is nailed to the cross and removed. As the curse of the Torah is decisively dealt with and the people of God are vindicated, Satan can no longer function as the Accuser in the same way again.
Throughout the OT we see a consistent belief that God will one day vindicate His scapegoated people. God will not merely exhume the bones of His people from the covering of their tombs; He will grant them full-fledged resurrection. In the NT we see that the whole work of Christ serves to bring to light the murder that lies at the foundation of the apostate nation. Beneath Jerusalem’s streets lie the tombs of the prophets, all the righteous men and the saints who were murdered since the foundation of the world. These tombs provide the foundation of the city itself and its inhabitants seek to cover up the truth behind the murder of these men either by adorning the graves, or by burying them as deep as possible. As the mature expression of the city of man Jerusalem shares the same foundations as Sodom, Egypt and Babylon (Revelation 11:8) — the murder of the innocent scapegoat.
The sin of scapegoating is essentially linked to the sin of self-righteousness. The ungodly justify themselves by condemning others, and ultimately the Righteous One Himself. Christ describes the Pharisees as those who are complicit in the concealing of the founding murders in Matthew 23. However, He also likens the Pharisees to hidden tombs; not only do the Pharisees house uncleanness and death within themselves as if they were sepulchers, they also conceal their very character as tombs. The whole process of scapegoating is an attempt to relocate guilt. The Pharisees were those who were seeking to vindicate themselves by concealing the truth about the murder of the prophets. Not only as a society, but deep within themselves as individuals they carried the concealed bones of dead men. The Pharisees were well-practiced scapegoaters: by judging and condemning others they sought to vindicate themselves. Paul points this out in Romans 2. Those who engage in judgment in such a manner in order to vindicate themselves actually end up condemning themselves. The death that Israel points to in the nations lies in the stone tomb of Israel’s own heart.
In His ministry Christ warns that all of this blood will be required from the hands of the wicked generation (Matthew 23:34-36). Jesus knew that His rejection was essential for the preservation of the city, that in some sense, His tomb (as the ultimate Innocent Victim) would provide the fullest foundation of Satan’s city. Nothing could threaten the old world order more than resurrection. The idea that the graves would be opened and that the inhabitants would come forth must have struck terror into Satan’s heart and caused his minions much fear. The foundations of the city would break open and the city itself would disintegrate. By expelling the Son, the wicked vinedressers had brought destruction upon themselves. In Jesus’ resurrection the foundations of Satan’s kingdom are exposed; the innocence of the Victim is manifest. Satan’s kingdom, as it is founded on a lie about the original murder, cannot ultimately survive the light of the Truth. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ throws the ancient order into ferment as the general resurrection and uncovering of all the tombs comes into the present. The truth about Jesus’ death cannot be covered over by Satan and all the secrets are brought to light. The webs of myth are brushed away from the graves and the tombs and the witnesses to the truth who have been silenced until now step forth.
The legal battle that was in principle won following the resurrection of Jesus Christ is continued through the witnessing Paraclete, who acts as the Advocate for the people of God against the Accuser. Through the ministry of the Paraclete the early Church bore witness to the innocence of the Victim — whose covered grave the rulers of the age intended to use as the foundation of their city — and threw the city into disorder in the process (Acts 5:27-32). Through the testimony of the martyrs the world was turned upside down as the inhabitants of the graves rose up and the kingdoms crumbled into dust; the residents of the catacombs were exalted as the inhabitants of thrones were cast down.
For all of this to take place, it was necessary that the scapegoating mechanism should bring about the crucifixion of Christ. Only by this means could the foundations of Satan’s kingdom be uncovered and destroyed. Despite the operation of the scapegoating mechanism, however, it was clearly God who was ultimately putting everything into effect.
Once the foundations of Satan’s kingdom have been exposed and destroyed, the whole superstructure is doomed to fall. Christ’s death at the hands of the evil city builders (Matthew 21:42) has resulted in the foundation of a new city — a city with true and sure foundations. Jesus Christ becomes the chief cornerstone of the Church. The foundations of this edifice are not the silenced tombs of the prophets, but those who, though dead, by faith still speak (Ephesians 2:20).

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