Jesus became a scapegoat to put an end to all scapegoating; he became a sacrifice to put an end to that whole system of offering up the innocent victim. Spiritually, socially, and psychologically humans have always needed to find some way to deal with sin and guilt. Historically, humanity has employed sacrificial systems to that end. In ancient systems of religion human sacrifices were offered to placate the deity (such as the firstborn, the virgin, the only child, etc., but never the adult man; these were mostly, if not all, patriarchal cultures). In the evolution of religious consciousness animals took the place of humans.
It doesn’t seem that our spiritual consciousness has evolved a great deal over the last several millenniums. In this past century the educationally advanced Germans made scapegoats of the Jews and consider all the horrendous scapegoating that took place in the genocides of the past several decades.
We have incorporated the scapegoat mechanism into Christianity by adopting a theory of the atonement that makes Jesus a victim of a stern, punitive divine Magistrate who requires redemptive violence. This is more or less primitive religion Christianized.
This type of infant religion is by its very nature dualistic and inevitably leads to exclusion and violence, because adherents of this type of Christianity think they have to destroy the evil element. Rarely do they see the evil in their own hearts; it is generally projected onto the other. This makes the God of Christians appear violent, vindictive, and petty.
What does Jesus do on the cross? He forgives. He bears the wrath and the hostility of the worldly powers—without lashing out, without vengeance, without returning evil for evil, without projecting fear or hate or evil back onto his persecutors and killers. Jesus exposed the folly and evil of scapegoat religion. As the quintessential “Son of Man,” the archetype of authentic humanity, he publicly exposed the great illusion of evil disguised as “holiness” by the religious gatekeepers and as “securing the peace” by the imperial powers represented by Pilot and the Roman soldiers. Jesus unmasked the true nature of egotistical religious and political power much the way the civil rights marchers who crossed the bridge in Selma, Alabama unmasked the illusion of white supremacy. (And yet consider how many Christians, especially Southern Baptists, bought into the illusion).
And still today we have deceptive versions of Christianity that permit, even encourage, Christians to buy into the illusion that might makes right. Control and manipulative power are legitimate means to an end in such systems. These versions of Christianity are primarily about spreading doctrinal beliefs and influencing the other to conform to their system, or else face God’s wrath; and in their exclusionary system, assuming themselves as the sole possessors of the truth, they have no problem being instruments of divine wrath on the other who does not conform.
In these unhealthy versions of Christianity (such as the kind reflected in the “Left Behind” novels) Jesus’ death is nothing more than a solution to some cosmic judicial problem. In these versions God requires the violent sacrifice of his Son in order to procure forgiveness. This is what evangelical philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard calls a “sin management” system that does nothing to effect real change in an individual or society.
If the life and teachings of Jesus tell us anything about the nature of God it is surely that God has no need for some cosmic, judicial retribution. If God can forgive, then God can forgive. There is no need for a divine payoff, or satisfaction of divine honor, or appeasement of divine wrath. (Ideas normally associated with the theory of substitutionary atonement).
Sin has never been a problem for God; it has been the problem for humanity, preventing us from reaching our potential, fueling greed, the lust for power, and the hoarding of wealth in an alienated and alienating ethos. Jesus did not come to change the mind or heart of God about humanity, but to change the mind and heart of humanity about God, each other, and our world.
Jesus’ death was not demanded by God; it was the logical culmination of a life that challenged the coercive, controlling powers that be with the power of an inclusive, unconditional, humble compassion. In a healthy Christianity it is not Jesus who needs to die, but our ego. We must die to our selfish ambitions, our need to be right and in control, and to all our projections of guilt, hate, and evil onto the other, whoever the other may be.
Jesus’ death becomes the means of our redemption when we follow Jesus to the cross and die there with him; when we refuse to return evil for evil and bear, with Jesus, the evil and hate of the powers that be. Jesus, through forgiveness and non-violence, offers us a way through the darkness, a way to break the cycle of hate and violence, and bring healing and transformation to our personal lives, families, communities, societies, and our planet.
Jesus’ death is not the solution to a problem residing in God; it’s the solution to the problem of evil residing in us. It is the ultimate, prototypical symbol of the nature and reality of God. Its salvific significance is primarily that of a “lure,” inviting us into the mystery and miracle of forgiveness, reconciling grace, and redemptive love.