Does the Scapegoat Destroy Biblical Ethics?
Simon Blackburn is a professor of metaphysics, ethics, and philosophy of mind and language at the University of Cambridge and at the University of North Carolina (“Simon Blackburn,” 2008; “Simon Blackburn,” 2010). He edited the scholarly journal Mind from 1984 to 1990, and his influence has been widened by his production of popular works about philosophical topics. One of these is his book Being Good (2001), a text regularly encountered by undergraduates in introductory ethics classes. In Being Good, Blackburn levels a number of attacks at Christianity, most of which we have dealt with previously (see Colley, 2010).
In Being Good, Blackburn alleges that God was unjust when He punished Jesus for the sins of humanity: “[T]he overall story of ‘atonement’ and ‘redemption’ is morally dubious, suggesting as it does that justice can be satisfied by the sacrifice of an innocent for the sins of the guilty—the doctrine of the scapegoat” (p. 12). This is all Blackburn wrote on the subject (at least in Being Good). In context, Blackburn’s point is that, because the use of a scapegoat is morally unacceptable, and biblical morality allowed Christ to be used as a scapegoat, then the Bible is unacceptable as an ethical guide. Atheistic writer Christopher Hitchens has echoed this sentiment: “We cannot, like fear-ridden peasants of antiquity, hope to load all our crimes onto a goat…. Our everyday idiom is quite sound in regarding ‘scapegoating’ with contempt. And religion is scapegoating writ large” (2007, p. 211).
THE SCAPEGOAT IN THE BIBLE
The scapegoat concept will be familiar to students of the Old Testament. The only mention of the scapegoat is in the passage about the institution of the Day of Atonement in the Mosaic Law:
Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering, which is for himself and for his house. He shall take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness…. And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat. Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness (Leviticus 16:7-10, 20-22).
The word translated “scapegoat” in the Leviticus text literally means “for Azazel.” The meaning of Azazel is obscure; it seems to refer to the sending away of the goat (see Möller, 1929, 1:342-343).
Observe several points about the scapegoat in Leviticus (adapted from Ryken, et al., 1998, pp. 763-764): (1) The goat was not a sacrifice to God. Only a perfect animal could be sacrificed to Him on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 1:10). (2) The discharge of sin by means of the scapegoat was possible only because God arranged it. (3) There were further special circumstances surrounding the use of the scapegoat. It was not as if the people could indiscriminately kill goats to get rid of sin. (4) God Himself chose the scapegoat. In sum, God was in charge of the whole process.
The Bible writers never designated Christ as God’s scapegoat per se. Yet, the vivid imagery of the scapegoat, in combination with the New Testament record of the death of Christ and the resulting atonement, does suggest a metaphorical connection between the Levitical offering of the scapegoat and the crucifixion as an example of foreshadowing, or a type/antitype relationship.
The motif of a creature chosen by God carrying the sins of the people out of an inhabited place to face God’s judgment reappears several times in the [New Testament]…. Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins (Heb 10:1-18), an offering to God and not “for Azazel.” Yet John the Baptist calls Jesus the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29), and in Hebrews 13:12-13 the point is stressed that Jesus was crucified outside the city…. [T]he disposal of sin is considered as an almost physical process: sin is loaded onto Jesus; he is driven out of town and given over to God’s curse (Gal 3:13). His death is a rightful consequence of our sinning (Rom 6:23). Thus some aspects of the ultimate justification by Christ are foreshadowed in the scapegoat ritual (Ryken, et al., p. 764, parenthetical items in orig.).
It is fair to suggest that the Bible portrays Jesus as a scapegoat in some ways. Does this damage the credibility of biblical ethics?
GOD WAS NOT UNJUST
The shocking thing about Blackburn’s proposal is that it is the extreme secular response to God’s grace. Only someone who wholeheartedly rejects the supernatural and feels no spiritual poverty could react to his sole means of salvation from eternal damnation by complaining coldly that the system fails to satisfy his own idea of justice. Yet, to the degree that Blackburn’s view is prominent and/or influential, it must be answered.
First, there are some points implicit in Blackburn’s statement with which we would agree. We have no argument with the idea that the Father ultimately was responsible for the death of the Son. The Father “did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). Nor do we contest that Jesus’ death was substitutionary punishment. He clearly suffered in our place (Isaiah 53:1-12; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:10,13; 1 Peter 2:24). We also agree with Blackburn that for one human person to use another human person as a scapegoat is morally wrong (cf. Matthew 7:12; Romans 12:17; Ephesians 4:32).
Our disagreement arises because Blackburn and Hitchens fail to appreciate the unity with which the Father and the Son operate. Jesus claimed that He and His Father are one (John 10:30). The skeptics seem to want us to view the vicarious death of Christ in a similar way as a judge finding a defendant guilty of a high crime, and then giving the death penalty to an innocent bystander instead of the defendant. None of us would condone such a sentence. Yet, Christ does not fit the role of the bystander in this hypothetical case. Christ is in fact the Judge, and has all authority in spiritual matters: Jesus, as the Father’s agent, will judge the living and the dead (see Acts 10:42; Acts 17:31; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 2 Timothy 4:1; 1 Peter 4:5; etc.). Jesus, as both Judge and willing participant in the scheme of redemption, essentially sentenced Himself to death (Romans 5:8; cf. Matthew 26:42). He voluntarily gave Himself (Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 5:1), and He will judge us as innocent only if we accept his terms of salvation, based on His grace (Ephesians 2:8-9).
To extend the courtroom illustration, consider that in the case of Christ, the trial took place before there ever was a defendant. The plan whereby Christ would die to offer salvation to the world was established infinitely prior to the first human sin. The plan was “according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:11). It was not as though man sinned and then God was forced to develop an ad hoc plan for justice, and He somehow settled on substitutionary atonement.
Furthermore, there is a sense in which every sinner who is saved must die. Paul explained this:
[D]o you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death…. [O]ur old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him…. [R]eckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:3-4,6-8,11).
We participate in Christ’s death symbolically when we are immersed into water, at which point we contact the blood of Christ (e.g., Galatians 3:27; Titus 3:5; 1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:5).
Finally, as with all illustrations, the idea that Christ is a scapegoat can only be taken so far. Insofar as God used the scapegoat as a foreshadowing of Christ, the imagery seems to have been used primarily to impress upon us that the crucifixion facilitated the removal of sins far away from those who are saved. Other images might be used to convey this notion (e.g., Psalms 103:12; Micah 7:19), but perhaps none of them are as powerfully illustrative of Christ’s redemptive role. If anyone imagines that the scapegoat illustration does much more than this, then he is on shaky interpretive ground, because the scapegoat concept does not cover everything that happened at the cross. For example, Blackburn ignored the fact that Christ’s death and resurrection initiated the establishment of a new covenant, a new system of religion. “For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator” (Hebrews 9:16). The will of Christ concerning the gospel plan for redeeming man in His body (the church; Ephesians 1:22-23) was brought into effect because Christ was willing to undergo physical death. “He takes away the first (the system of animal sacrifice) that He may establish the second (sanctification through Christ)” (Hebrews 10:9, parenthetical items added; cf. 8:7-13).
We are grateful for Christ’s sacrifice on many levels, and our appreciation is only enhanced by Old Testament imagery that provides insight into various aspects of God’s mercy. “[T]he love of Christ compels us…” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Blackburn, Simon (2001), Being Good (New York: Oxford University Press).
Colley, Caleb (2010), “Is Christianity a Threat to Ethics?” URL: https://apologeticspress.org/articles/240427.
Hitchens, Christopher (2007), God is Not Great (New York: Random House).
Möller, Wilhelm (1929), “Azazel,” The International Bible Encyclopaedia, ed. James Orr (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson), 1:342-344.
Ryken, Leland, et al., eds. (1998), Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic).
“Simon Blackburn” (2008), Cambridge University, URL: http://www.phil.cam.ac.uk/teaching_staff/blackburn/blackburn_index.html.
“Simon Blackburn” (2010), UNC College of Arts & Sciences, URL: http://philosophy.unc.edu/people/faculty/simon-blackburn.
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