Girard, Jesus, and the True Meaning of the Broad & Narrow Roads.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

I read a great post on the cross by Morgan Guyton that I wanted to respond to. In that post Morgan discusses Girardian theory, contrasting it with penal substitution. He writes,
The scapegoat theory’s basic idea is that God the Father doesn’t demand Jesus’ blood as the price for humanity’s sin, but that we humans needed Jesus to be our scapegoat so that we could be liberated from our sin ... Yes, Jesus’ death is a payment for my sin, but God doesn’t need to see the blood to be okay with me; I need to see the blood to be okay with God.
This sounds very much like the kind of thing I myself said in my essay Penal Substituion vs. Christus Victor that I wrote many years ago. There I write,
God does not need the cross to forgive us or love us. Jesus forgave and loved people before the cross. But some of us needed the cross to be able to really accept that forgiveness. God does not need the cross to love us: God has always loved us. But many of us needed the cross to really grasp that.
My concern with both of these statements (both mine and his) is that they could be interpreted as meaning that God allowed Jesus to die to appease our need for satisfaction, to appease our need for payback justice. If we have a problem with the idea that God would need to be appeased with the blood of an innocent before he could love us (as both Morgan and I both do), it is equally wrong for us to demand the same. It would be profoundly immoral for God to indulge this desire of ours.

That's what I see as a fundamental problem with Abelardian moral influence theory: It is a nice idea that we are moved by the love of God, but if Jesus died a brutal and violent death just so that we could be moved, then frankly that would be really sick.

So then, that brings us to the question: If we should not think of the death of Jesus as appeasing us, how does Girardian theory work exactly? What does it mean to say that "we humans needed Jesus to be our scapegoat so that we could be liberated from our sin"? How would that liberate us exactly? I think Morgan gets it right when he says,
It was humanity who needed to crucify Jesus so that we could be convicted by seeing our wickedness made plain and naked before us.
Let's unpack that dynamic a bit more: The idea of scapegoating is that the people believe that the person being blamed and condemned and punished is in fact bad and guilty. They deserve it. Roman crucifixion, just like our own practice of capital punishment today, was intended to be the fulfillment of justice. What the cross shows is that the one who has been condemned by the authorities is in fact innocent and good and holy and that those authorities (both religious and political) are in fact not just and not good. It reveals the injustice of our justice system based on retribution. Thus Paul writes, that Christ "having disarmed the powers and authorities, made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Col 2:15). Seeing Jesus in the place of the victim, in the place of the accused, of the criminal, unmasks the injustice of the system, and to the extent that we have embraced that system of retribution as good, it unmasks our hurtfulness, too.

When Jesus says "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Mt 7:13) The common Christian interpretation is to associate this with being a Christian vs. a non-Christian. The "broad road" is thus the one of drinking and sex and sin, and the narrow road is for those who have "accepted Jesus." But I don't think this is at all what Jesus had in mind when he said it. 

The context of this statement (the Sermon on the Mount) is one of Jesus presenting his way of enemy love in contrast to the way of an eye for an eye. It is in the context of Jesus' radical message of undeserved forgiveness. The audience for that message is not primarily those who are outsider "sinners" but insider religious folks who believe in and long for hell and wrath, who believe in punishment and payback as being good and want to see the "bad guys" punished. 

The reason that road is wide is because most people believe in payback justice. So the people on that "broad road" are not only the criminals, those who hurt others with their cruelty, those who victimize, but also those who want to see those people suffer for what they have done, those who want to make them pay, those who long for hell. They are on that same broad road because they are swept up in that cycle of violence of hurting and being hurt, that endless spiral of retribution. Our blind-spot is that we think that it's good and we call it "justice." The broad road is thus filled with religious people, with "good" people.

Jesus instead is calling us to the narrow road of compassion and forgiveness and enemy love. He is pleading with us to recognize that blame and payback are killing us. Literally. I saw a documentary recently about how the Russians, when they invaded Berlin in the final days of WWII, had a widespread practice of plundering and raping civilians. Why were they so brutal? One word: Retribution. They had suffered brutality under the Nazis in a way that we Americans had not, and now they wanted retribution. That's a pattern that we see tragically repeated in history over and over again. 

So again, when I say it is "killing us" I really do mean literally. People right now kill other people in the name of justice, whether it's a personal vendetta or a state action. We send drones overseas and those drones rip people into ribbons-- often times killing little kids or other innocent bystanders. That's sin. All sorts of people are abused or raped. That's sin. So we don't need to make up a pretend sin problem. There are very real ones right in our neighborhood, and for many of us in our own past. Perhaps we are perpetrators or perhaps we are victims (to some extent we have all hurt others, and been hurt ourselves), but either way we need to get off that treadmill of hurt, and learn to walk in love. That's a very hard road to walk. That's what those two roads are about. That's what Jesus meant.

When Paul speaks of our declaring that "Jesus is Lord" he means that the crucified one is Lord and the one who crucifies (Caesar) is not Lord. It means that the one who appears as a criminal, a failure, as forsaken, damned, blamed, rejected, as the terrorist, the criminal... that one hanging on the cross is the holy and righteous Son of God. In contrast, the one who stands for justice, who is strong and rich and glorious and right... that one is a sham. The whole system is a sham. That's what Paul was doing in proclaiming the crucified one. That's why he said it was "foolishness" and a scandal. It still is.

Jesus calls us to identify with the "least" and with our enemies. By the "least" he does not mean someone we sympathize with, like Dicken's Tiny Tim or poor Cosette from Les Mis.  No, the "least" are those who we regard as the least and the lowest. Those we are revolted by and find unworthy. To identify with the crucified is to identify with them. The beauty is that when we can make room in our hearts to love the unlovable that also includes an unconditional embrace of ourselves.

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At 1:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This may come across as just rambling so I apologise in advance

"It was humanity who needed to crucify Jesus so that we could be convicted by seeing our wickedness made plain and naked before us"

This is the bit I'm struggling to get my head around. We needed to kill him so we could see everything that is wrong with us. It reminds me of an episode of the TV show Angel where a group of very wound up and paranoid people hang Angel and then the suddenly see what they have done, and look on in horror before moving away. Are you saying that in a way, we've tried to bury the horror of it by saying that it was Gods choosing, he sent his Son to bear this and try and distance ourselves from it whilst somehow still saying its our fault? On a slightly separate issue, where does this leave the "foretelling" in the Old Testament?

At 6:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think it's both/and. The blood cleanses and purifies. This is what pleases God. Not the blood and suffering in and of itself. God was pleased in what the Son accomplished at the cross in showing love for the whole world. Christ is our mercy seat where our sins are expiated, purified, and forgiven. This is when God's wrath is removed or propitiated.

At 8:08 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

"The beauty is that when we can make room in our hearts to love the unlovable that also includes an unconditional embrace of ourselves."

Whoa! That hit me like a gust of wind!
The gospels have a strong motif of caring for the vulnerable and the least, but then Paul takes up the theme and basically tells us that we are all broken and short of the glory of God, and that we should acknowledge and embrace that as the Cross-shapen Way.

That brings words by Jesus like "It's not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I didn't come to call the saints, but godless people to repentance" into sharp irony. Because here were the Pharisees thinking they were saints, when in truth, there are no saints at all. EVERYONE is in need of a doctor.

I'd also argue that learning to embrace the vulnerable, broken parts of ourselves the way God wants us to, always fills up our tank to be able to do that for others.

At 9:30 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Perhaps this will help: The idea is not that we "needed to crucify Jesus" as in we did not *want to* but it was *necessary*, like eating your yucky vegetables. It's more that we as a society were regularly executing criminals and doing other things in the name of payback justice--betrayal, getting revenge, going to war, escalating violence, etc.. That's what we were doing over and over and over, and we were calling it good and thinking that we were moral in doing that. God then steps into the role of the scapegoat, of the bad guy, of the scum, and our eyes are opened to the victimization and violence and hate that has been going on all the time in the name of justice and in the name of God.

Depending on your perspective that could mean if you were the one calling out "crucify!" then your sin and violence would be exposed. That fits a lot of "good" people. It could also be that if you were the one who was being victimized and abused and made to feel like garbage and rotten and evil that in seeing God in your place you realize that you are loved.

Of course those who are victimized often want to seek revenge, they demand "justice" for the wrong, and so the role can quickly switch from victim to victimizer in the cycle of violence. So the broader goal is to unmask the entire false system of retributive justice and call us into Jesus' way of enemy love.

At 9:36 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Good stuff Samurai, totally agree.

Remember Paul's primary audience in Romans is Pharasee-like religious people. He points out that while they want wrath and hell and retribution for the lawbreakers and enemy Gentiles, that they are just as much lawbreakers and instead calls them to look in the mirror and embrace the way of restoration and mercy and enemy love, rather than the way of wrath and retribution. So I think Paul & Jesus are saying the same thing but in different styles.

At 9:40 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


I think it would be important to consider HOW wrath is removed. I would maintain that it is not because God was appeased. Rather it is because we leave the whole wrath-machine. Jesus steps into the wrath-machine and it is revealed as bad. The wrath-machine is then broken to bits via the resurrection as death and punishment and hell are conquered by Christ.

At 9:52 AM, Blogger JunZ said...


At 11:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


God loves good and hates evil. As we enter into faith union with Christ the old self is destroyed by wrath as the new self is resurrected to new life. We were crucified with Christ. The motivation of God here is holy love. It will be the same for those who are baptized in the Lake Of Fire. The old self is destroyed as a new self is created. This is purification. All opposites are held in balance in Christ. Therefore He is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. It's a purifying light of holy love.

At 6:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The psalms mention worshipping the Lord in the Beauty of holiness. The way God draws us to Himself is by revealing His beauty. Through intense suffering He pierces the heart with His arrow creating a desire for love and beauty. When the suffering is released it produces an ecstatic experience. Going through a confusion or purgation of the mind causes one to be released from the strict either/or of the mind into both the either/or and the both/and. Holiness is united to love in Christ. That is, it's both rules and heart. The rules are there to protect what is sacred. We need God's boundaries. This is when the law becomes a delight. It's both holiness and love. Holy love. Love that has God's boundaries set into place.

At 5:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Christ's love is agape but there is also this bond one has with Christ like the way one would have with their husband or wife. It's like the experience one has when they first fall in love. It has happened to me after severe emotional suffering. Insecurity is what creates the desire or void. Christ then fills this void with love and beauty for the heart, truth for the mind, and hope that gives meaning to life. Falling in love with Jesus brings a change in ones life. You cannot fall in love if you are satisfied with what you have or who you are. Falling in love originates in an extreme depression. The symptom of the predisposition to fall in love is not the conscious desire to do so. It is the profound sense of being worthless and of having nothing that is valuable and the shame of not having it. It's when you are unsure of your worth and ashamed of yourself. This is God's arrow piercing the heart creating the desire for Himself.

At 10:52 AM, Blogger rr said...

Dear Derek,

A book written a while back

The Double Search, by Rufus Jones, is pretty interesting on the topics of Atonement and Prayer; don't know if you have seen it?

All the best; I learn a lot from your book, your blog and the many comments!


Rajarshi Roy

lasynch at

At 5:34 PM, Blogger Samurai said...

Hey Derek,

I've been reading about Girard, mimetic theory, and scapegoating online. Fascinating stuff!

One quick question: in your mind, how would you argue that Jesus dying on the Cross unmasks the evil of violence far more than witnessing a human being being lynched by a mob?

At 8:20 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Girard's work is focused on a study of world literature. Most stories are told from the perspective of the strong. Those who are scapegoated in these stories are portrayed as the bad guy, the ugly, the hated. So we see the lynching and think "they deserved that!" and root for the one's who killed them.

Girard observes that Hebrew literature (Psalms, Job) is the first to tell the story from the perspective of the victim. In the Gospels this is taken even further: The one who is weak, who is a victimized, who is condemned, is presented as the image of God, as the holy one. That is a truly radical idea that was and still is a "scandal" and "foolishness." The crucified God. God understood in weakness.

So the issue is not that Jesus dying on the Cross unmasks the evil of violence far more than witnessing a human being being lynched by a mob. Rather it is that when we get the story of Jesus then our eyes are opened to see other scapegoating unmasked. Now instead of viewing the lynching as a symbol of justice (as it is intended to be understood by the mob) it is instead viewed as unjust and tragic. We understand the words of Jesus "as you have done it unto the least, you do it to me" or more plainly said "the way you treat those who you value the least, that's how you treat God."

It's all about story, and more specifically how we interpret and understand stories. How do we interpret the events? Do we view those events from the perspective of the powerful? Or do we view them from the perspective of the little, the weak? The Gospels are about us learning to see from the perspective of the least. Other stories, including how history is remembered is usually told from the perspective of the "winners" of the conquers. So it's a change in perspective initiated by God come among us that allows us to then see everything differently.

At 5:33 PM, Blogger Samurai said...

Happy valentines day all! What can I say....the rebel god blog is a house of love. God's love that is! ;)

At 11:34 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Thanks for the clarification Derek.

At 12:45 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

I definitely agree with you that the Cross is about more than facilitating our psychological capability of receiving God's forgiveness (or even benefiting from Jesus' example of Self-giving love as Abelard seems to have proposed contra Anselm's theory of satisfaction), even though it may be true that the Cross does these things. I don't disagree that, properly understood, the Cross exposes the sinfulness of a thirst for retributive justice, rather than validating it (as in PSA). If anyone could have been seen to have a right to retributive justice, it would have been Jesus, yet He commits Himself to the very opposite course in submitting to and enduring the Cross, though the Gospels are clear He had the power to do otherwise. In so doing, He conquers sin and death and both opens and shows us the Way to do the same. From an EO perspective, the meaning and power of the Cross is not transactional (i.e., the cosmic "exchange") nor extrinsic to our own participation in it (represented by our baptism and taught in Jesus' clear teaching that anyone who would follow Him must take up his own cross). The power of the Cross is rather the inauguration of the transfiguration of redeemed humanity into the likeness of Christ, which opens the way to resurrection life. We are not saved by a legal or economic transaction between God and man, but rather by our incorporation into Christ, our sharing/participation in His death and life made possible through His identification and solidarity with us in the Incarnation, even to the point of suffering all the consequences of our sin.

The Cross would have served to convict those whose eyes were open to what was actually transpiring there (like the believing thief) of their own deservedness of punishment in distinction to how undeserved it was for Jesus. Another narrative recorded in the Gospel of John that seems to send the same (or a complementary message) to the one you see in the Cross is the story of the woman caught in adultery who is brought to Jesus. Jesus tells her accusers that the one who has not sinned should be the one to throw the first stone. Your discussion of the identity of "the least" of these also puts me in mind of Jesus' story of the Publican and the Pharisee, which is the annual reading during the period in preparation for Lent in the Orthodox Church (and thus read a couple of Sundays ago in my parish). It is the Publican who goes away justified. Only the one who can see he condemns himself any time he condemns the other (in that we all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory), no matter how obvious the other's sin, is capable of the humility and repentance that opens the way to be made right with God.

At 8:37 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Great stuff ofGrace, thanks for sharing!

At 11:54 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Derek I just finished reading your article of yore - "An Evangelical Relational Theology" - and thought it was awesome!

I know this is unrelated to this thread, but I'd encourage you to make THAT into a book too once you finish your current projects! I know your work in general is always based on a relational framework, but a work directly addressing the topic could be intriguing. We desperately need to make relationship the 'leitmotif' of theological conversation and biblical interpretation.


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