How Jesus Put an End to Sacrifice

by S. Mark Heim

S. Mark Heim is assistant professor of Christian theology at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He is a member of the National Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 5, 2006 pp. 23-29. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Only God can reveal the total reality of sacrifice and reverse its obliterated victims through resurrection, and bring about an alternative choice for human unity.

Christians are often urged to get over their exclusive focus on Christ’s death. There have been numberless crucifixions, numberless religious sacrifices, we are told. It happens all the time. Yet Christians talk about this death as ‘once for all." They sing: "For my pardon, this I see, / Nothing but the blood of Jesus; / For my cleansing this my plea, / Nothing but the blood of Jesus." Christians are fixated on Jesus’ death and will accept no other like it. The accusation is perfectly correct. To believe in the crucified one is to want no other victims. To depend on the blood of Jesus is to refuse to depend on the sacrificial blood of anyone else. It is to swear off scapegoats. Sacred violence promises to save us from retaliatory catastrophe. But what will save us from sacred violence? Only some event that may achieve once for all what sacred violence attempts by endless repetition.

The mechanism of sacrifice is the way the powers of this world contain their own violence. But Jesus and the Gospel writers do not intend to endorse or comply with that mechanism.

Seen from this perspective, the somewhat enigmatic actions of Christ make complete sense. To resist victimization by means of counterviolence would be to reinforce the very evil that sacrifice seeks to contain. And it would only feed the demand for sacrifice. On the other hand, to submit passively to the sacrificial mechanism would do nothing to change it. That only smoothes the way for future victims and condemns them to invisibility. Such is the dilemma, the malignant wisdom of an evil that we seem doomed to serve whichever way we turn. Humanity is caught in this bondage, caught without even being able to name it directly. We know not what we do.

This bondage is presented dramatically in the person of Peter in the Gospels, who successively occupies all of these fruitless positions. At Jesus’ first announcement of the passion, Peter objects. This fate must never happen to Jesus. It is incompatible with the role of a victorious Messiah, who presumably must defeat the opposing powers by a direct battle. Later he reverses course and tells Jesus that he is ready to go and die with him. At Jesus’ arrest in the garden, he draws his sword and attempts to violently defend Jesus against the cross. In the first and third cases he is rebuked by Jesus, and in the second Jesus predicts that far from dying with him, Peter will deny he even knows Jesus.

The incomprehension of the disciples is not hard to understand, for we have been reproducing it ever since. How to hold together these apparent contradictions? What is happening to Jesus is wrong, but Jesus must not avoid it. It is shameful that not even one of the disciples will stand up for Jesus, but their abandonment is one of the things that makes the revelation even more complete. God would never build a world on innocent sacrifice, but since humanity did, God will find a way -- once -- -to turn to good what we have founded in evil. We who still find it so hard to make sense of the cross can hardly patronize the stupidity of the disciples.

God steps into this double bind and overcomes it. No other could. Jesus does not encourage his disciples to think they might do what he is doing. This task is appointed to him alone. No ordinary victim can change this process, can uncover what is obscured in the constant practice of scapegoating.

Redemptive violence -- violence that claims to be for the good of many, to be sacred, to be the mysterious ground of human life itself -- always purports to be the means of overcoming sin (removing pollution, punishing the transgressor who has brought disaster on the community). The sin that it characteristically claims to overcome is the offense of the scapegoat, the crime that the victim has committed. But in the passion account set forth in the Gospels the sin in view is that of the persecutors. It is not the sin of the one that jeopardizes the many, but the sin of the many against the one. In the passion narratives, redemptive violence stands forth plainly and unequivocally as itself the sin that needs to be overcome.

Any human being can be plausibly scapegoated (we are all sinners), and no human can prevail when the collective community turns against her. It is not sufficient to simply instruct us about our situation, for we are all too fully enclosed in the scapegoating process to be able to break the spell. It is historically hard to come to see this process for what it is. And it is much more difficult for us to recognize our own actions as scapegoating.

It is an extraordinary step even to arrive at an awareness of our own susceptibility to that dynamic, as is expressed by the disciples at the Last Supper. When Jesus predicts his own betrayal, they piteously ask him, "Is it I, Lord?" A hardheaded reader would object that at this late date they ought to know if they are going to betray him or not. But they have understood enough to know that they can’t be sure. They are not exempt. When the cock crows the third time for Peter, it crows for us, to state the truth that when we become part of a mob, we too will likely be the last to know.

Only one whose innocence can be undeniably vindicated may, by suffering this sacrifice, reverse it. Here we gain an interesting additional perspective on the church’s commitment to a high Christology. The work of the cross is the work of a transcendent God, breaking into a cycle we could not change alone. It is a saving act of God, a victory over the powers of this world, a defeat of death.

If we limit Jesus’ work to that of a human exemplar, the crucifixion becomes more of a prescription for suffering than if we grasp it as the work of the incarnate one, once for all. The place of the ritual victim is open to all, and refilled perpetually Jesus’ role cannot be replaced and therefore should not be.

The human situation is not just one of ignorance about the mythic process of scapegoating, though even at this level it is hard to see how people can "think their way out." From inside the process, the misrecognition of what is happening, the invisibility of victims, is difficult to overcome because, though the process operates on lies, no one is consciously telling any. Everyone acts in good faith in the sacrificial system, and no clues are left to stir up trouble.

But the problem is a good deal more serious than this. Even were people to grasp the situation, there would still be no way out of it. The testimony of the gospel is that only God has had the power to solve this dilemma of human bondage, the no-win choice between using violence to stem violence (which is only more of the sacrificial prescription) and simply joining the line of victims. It is God alone who can reveal the entire reality of the sacrificial process, reverse through resurrection its obliteration of victims, and structure an alterative option for human solidarity.

This is why Christ is explicated in the New Testament as the truth, the life and the way. Each of these tasks requires an act of transcendent power and wisdom. It is a complete misunderstanding to suppose that what we have been discussing might be reduced to some sociological or anthropological insights, clothed in symbolic, religious terms. Anomalous as such knowledge might be, it would hardly be sufficient to save and reconcile humans in the midst of such conflicts.

True teachings are dangerous, the Buddha is supposed to have said. And the best teachings are the most dangerous. The theology of the cross an be the best or the worst. The two are poised close together. The cross is a kind of intersection, where different atonements meet.

The Romans are at odds with the Judean Jews. Jewish factions are at odds with each other. The Romans are afraid of rebellion. The religious leaders are afraid of repression. Pilate is ready to make Jesus a politically redemptive sacrifice, to keep his contagious preaching from stirring social crisis. Some of the chief priests are ready to make Jesus a religiously redemptive sacrifice, to keep his blasphemy and sin from contaminating the community.

They all expect Jesus’ death to have a reconciling effect on this situation.

That seems to be precisely what Caiaphas and Pilate have in mind. Jesus’ death makes enemies like Pilate and Herod friends before it even happens. There’s nothing like a little redemptive violence to bring us all together. This is atonement of a sort, but the New Testament was not written to commend it.

Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ missed a momentous opportunity to illuminate these aspects of the passion. There are scenes where the occasion to do so lies painfully close at hand. One key point comes when Jesus is brought back before Pilate and the crowd after having been whipped and brutalized. The plot goes to and fro, with Barabbas being released and Pilate temporizing. As things draw on, the throng grows more restive. Pushing and shoving break out in the front ranks between the Roman soldiers and members of the crowd. Conflict is rapidly escalating. This moment of crisis is the catalyst. Things snap. Crucify him, Pilate says.

Satan is a visible figure in Gibson’s film. With that convention, this is the one moment Satan certainly should have appeared (but doesn’t), moving in the crowd and whispering, "We’ve got to get rid of Jesus or he’s going to bring the Romans down on us." And moving among the Roman soldiers, saying, "We’ve got to get rid of Jesus or there will be rebellion and blood on the streets." And nudging up to Peter and John and Mary, advising, "Don’t say anything -- do you want to get killed like that too?" And standing behind Pilate: "It’s for everyone’s good. We have to stop the violence." Satan is the advocate for reconciling persecution, orchestrating it from all sides in an age-old snare that closes around Jesus in a fit of unanimity.

So is this the way God works? Is God really just another member of the crowd, full of wrath at the whole human race and in need of a victim to vent that anger, a victim around whom God and his former enemies can gather in peace? Is this God’s plan, on a cosmic scale, to avoid killing us all?

We have gone astray if we think that God endorses the mechanism of scapegoating sacrifice and that the crucifixion is just the largest and most powerful example. Such a view leaves the mechanism unquestioned and focuses instead on the special qualities of the victim: God feeds a bigger and better victim into this machinery to get a bigger payoff. But that is not the truth. Jesus’ accusers intend his death to be sacrificial business as usual. But God means it to be the opposite.

I have perhaps made this sound more complicated than it needs to be. It is not as though it has not been expressed often enough, and in a way children can understand. C. S. Lewis did so in his Christian allegory the Chronicles of Narnia. In the land of Narnia the evil powers have imprisoned creatures by turning them to stone, one by one.

These powers have been aided by a human traitor, Edmund, who has gone over to their side, but whom they now intend to sacrificially slaughter. He is rescued at the last minute and returns to fight on the side of the Christ-lion Aslan. But the evil powers under a flag of truce insist that Edmund must be handed over to them, that there must be retribution for every treachery, death for death. The Christ-lion Asian agrees to be handed over and killed in Edmund’s place, on the condition that the evil powers renounce their claim on his life.

This law of retribution and the sacrificial process of exchange based on it (in which an innocent one may die on behalf of others and so protect them) are known to all from the earliest times. Lewis calls it "Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time." This has been going on for ages. There is an ancient stone altar on which Edmund was to be killed, and upon which Asian is actually sacrificed. The act has a mysterious, sacred aura and an air of inevitability. The evil powers love this arrangement and, incidentally, have no intention of keeping their bargain. Once Asian is dead, they intend also to kill those he meant to save. This treachery is a key point, because it tips off the reader that this exchange itself cannot be the final word, nor the substance of the divine plan. It is a decidedly lower magic.

The resurrection comes into this story as an unexpected development, from what the book calls "Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time," something about which the evil powers know nothing. The violent mystery of sacrifice goes back to the dawn of human time, but it has no purchase on the original blessing of creation that stands even further back still.

And when AsIan rises from the dead, the ancient stone altar on which the sacrifice was offered cracks and crumbles in pieces, never to be used again. The substitution of Asian for Edmund cannot save if it is simply a variation on the same sacrificial theme rather than an act to overthrow the process altogether. The stained stone may have been the centerpiece of religion and sacred awe in human history. But it was not God’s altar. The gospel is not ultimately about exchange of victims, but about ending bloodshed.

The terms and structure of scapegoating sacrifice are laid bare in the Bible. This is the first side of the cross. In the Bible, particularly in the passion narratives, the terms are actively turned against themselves. That is the second side of the cross. In the traditional practice of sacrifice, the divine powers typically stood on the side of the crowd and endorsed its violence. But the God of Israel becomes a God who sides with Job and with the persecuted victims of the Psalms, the God of the prophets. And in the New Testament God becomes the scapegoat. The afflicted one was always assumed to be punished by divine wrath as well as by unanimous human judgment. In this case it is God who is condemned by consensus, who is punished as an enemy of God. It is God who undergoes the sacrificial process in order to turn it inside out. Sacrifice is turned against sacrifice.