The Cross and the Transformation of Evil
The unsolved problem of the Old Testament sacrificial cult would seem to make it impossible to develop a systematic interpretation of the death of Christ from that starting point. Certainly, the letter to the Hebrews sees the cross explicitly against the background of the cult, and it describes Christ as a high priest who offered a sacrifice. But the letter to the Hebrews can make these statements only because, by the use of numerous antitheses, it totally alters the concepts of both priest and sacrifice. First of all it separates Christ from the great, broad tradition of the Aaronite and Levite priesthood and links him with the priest king Melchizedek (Heb. 7:1-24), who is a marginal figure in the Old Testament and is mentioned there only briefly on two occasions (Gen. 14:18; Ps. 110:4). As high priest according to the order of Melchizedek, Christ is the mediator of a different, new covenant (Heb. 7:22; 8:1-13; 9:15), and to him belongs also a quite new priestly order. He does not have to offer sacrifice day after day for himself and the people (Heb. 7:25-28), nor does he enter an earthly sanctuary in order to sprinkle it with the blood of he-goats and bulls. Rather, he brought about a redemption once for all, and entered into the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 9:11-10:18). From the viewpoint of this new sacrifice it can be seen that the cultic sacrifices of the Old Testament brought about atonement only in the sense that people became "purified in the flesh" (Heb. 9:13). The letter to the Hebrews, then, expressly restricts the effectiveness of the earlier sacrifices to the realm of external cultic purity, whose purpose was to remind people of sins, without being able to bring about any inner healing: "But through these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year, for the blood of bulls and goats cannot possibly take away sins" (Heb. 10:3ff.). The verdict on the sacrificial cult is unambiguous: it was unable to bring about any actual purification from sins. This is why the letter to the Hebrews, despite its explicit relationship to the tradition of sacrifice, is able to take a critical line of thought on sacrifice and to note the paradoxical fact that Psalm 40:7-9 talks of God not demanding sacrifices and taking no pleasure in them, even though "these are offered according to the law" (Heb. 10:8). The letter to the Hebrews resolves the contradictory evidence of the Old Testament by relating the criticism of sacrifice directly to Christ, who with these words abolished the existing order and set up over against it obedience. The continuity of content between the Old and New Testament runs not through the cultic line, but through the line of criticism of the cult, which emphasizes obedience.
The letter to the Hebrews is able, through a massive hermeneutical reinterpretation, to take up on the one hand the whole metaphorical and symbolic meaning of the cult, but on the other hand to express something which is completely new in content. Through the confrontation of the cultic tradition with the tradition critical of sacrifice, it succeeds in creating, out of a problematic at the heart of the Old Testament, a complex symbol for the divine action and the divine will: God by the law commanded something which he himself did not specifically want, but which -- in awakening consciousness of sin -- was temporarily needed for humankind. This command to offer sacrifices was promulgated by the law because of its pedagogic and linguistic function and not because of its atoning effect. The new teaching is tied in with the cult only as an illustration, whereas the criticism of sacrifice is spelled out as Christ's own words (Heb. 10:8ff.). What was a tradition competing with the cult in the Old Testament becomes in the letter to the Hebrews an authoritative pronouncement about this whole past practice of sacrifice.
There is, it is true, one point where the question arises as to whether the letter to the Hebrews might, after all, recognize a certain continuity of content between the Old Testament sacrifices and the death of Christ. The cult operated through blood (Heb. 9:7, 18-22), and Christ too offered himself as a sacrifice through his blood (Heb. 9:14). The Aaronite and Levite priests sprinkled with others' blood (that of he-goats and bulls), whereas Christ entered the sanctuary with his own (Heb. 9:12; 10:19; 12:24). But does this difference (others' or one's own blood) abolish the continuity between the cult and Christ's death, or is there a certain common basis in the shedding of blood?
The issue of the shedding of blood, so important for the letter to the Hebrews, points first to the need to examine and interrogate from a Christian perspective those theories of sacrifice arising from the study of religion which also emphasize the shedding of blood (the act of killing). The explicit statement that Christ offered a sacrifice with his own blood shows, moreover, that the problematic with which we began our reflections on sacrifice is in fact central. At the beginning of this section we asked how self-sacrifice is to be understood. If Christ identified himself not with the evil will of his opponents, but with their concrete action (crucifixion), did he not therefore fully agree to his being killed? Can one not also take the statement that Christ sacrificed himself as high priest "with his own blood" as an indication of the indirect killing of himself? In considering the fate of Jesus we have often come across the theme of God's nonviolence. But now the more subtle question arises, whether we have to understand this concept in such a way that Christ, although he shunned all violence against others, finally turned that violence against himself -- in self-sacrifice. Seeing things this way, could one not very easily link up the great Old Testament themes of judgment and God's vengeance, the tradition of cultic killing, and also many New Testament utterances about judgment, with the message of nonviolence (toward others)? The cross would then be a sacrifice in the sense that the priest (Christ) did in fact kill something, namely, himself. Writing about the ethics of the early community, G. Theissen speaks of a "turning-around of aggression," (1) and he thinks that "heightened aggressivity turned in upon itself could thus paradoxically swing around into positive acceptance of the other." (2) There seem to be statements supporting such a view even in the Sermon on the Mount, which teaches nonviolence (toward others) especially clearly. If one member is seduced into evil, it should be plucked out or cut off, for it is better to be mutilated than to be damned with the whole body (Matt. 5:29ff.; 18:8ff.). Is there consequently a self-aggression in the service of a higher good? Because of this question we must once more go into the problematic of judgment at a new and deeper level. If the thesis that God in his anger directly struck and destroyed his Son by means of sinners (K. Barth) did not stand up to scrutiny, the more subtle problematic still remains, namely, whether he led the crucified one through obedience to self-aggression and thereby judged him. Christ would then have taken on himself the self-judgment of sinners in the sense that he did in full consciousness and freedom what sinners do in their blindness: judge and destroy themselves.
This question is not easy to answer, since we would need to feel our way into the inner attitude of Jesus, and the New Testament utterances make use of words which come up in different contexts and can therefore be interpreted in different ways. However the question is one with very great consequences. If the outcome is affirmative, then everything which we have worked out so far has to be looked at again in a completely fresh light, with considerable consequences for Christian spirituality and the practice of the faith.
In the Old Testament, with the exception of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, violent death was understood to imply only judgment and curse, while the New Testament sees the cross of Christ as positive. How is this difference to be understood? Since the Old Testament cult also attributes a positive atoning effect to the sacrificial death of animals, we must look into the question already addressed earlier in this investigation, namely, whether the formal element in atonement resides in the act of killing. The difference between the old and new order would consist in this, that in the former animals were killed daily, whereas in the latter Christ sacrificed and (indirectly) killed himself once for all.
Since the letter to the Hebrews understands Melchizedek as king of peace (Heb. 7:1ff.), (3) such a view immediately causes problems. But peace could be understood as a paradoxical result of "aggressivity turned in upon itself." A useful indication is given by the letter to the Hebrews where it takes up the Old Testament's critical line against sacrifice and, putting words into Christ's mouth, also makes him say that he comes in order to do the divine will. Subsequently, the letter goes on: "And by that will we have been sanctified once and for all by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ" (dia tes prosphoras tou somatos Iesou Christou, Heb. 10:10). The sanctification was brought about fundamentally through the will of God, fulfilled by Christ. The agreement of wills was decisive. But what is meant by the addition "through the offering of the body"? Could it be that God wanted not the concrete burnt offering for sin but instead that element in this sacrifice, the killing, which pointed to the self-sacrifice of Christ? Even the apparently unambiguous text about the abolition of cultic sacrifice and about sanctification through the divine will can consequently be read in two different, even opposed directions.
Another passage in the letter to the Hebrews runs:
For by a single sacrifice he has perfected forever those who are sanctified. The Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, "This is the covenant I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their heart and write them on their minds"; then he adds, "I will remember their sins and transgressions no more." Where sins are forgiven, there is no longer any offering for sin. (Heb. 10:14-18)The New Testament letter makes a direct connection in this passage between the unique sacrifice of Christ and the saying of the prophet Jeremiah about the new covenant. The will of Christ in his surrender is hereby formally identified with the new law which God inscribes on our innermost hearts. But self-aggression could not have a place under this new, inner, law, for otherwise disturbing consequences would follow for our understanding of God's kingdom and of the life of completeness with God.
A further text finally gives us a pointer to the answer we have been seeking: "For if the blood of goats . . . sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the power of the eternal Spirit offered himself to God as a sacrifice without blemish, purify our conscience from dead works so that we may serve the living God" (Heb. 9:13ff.). The surrender of Christ as victim was not only identical with the law of the new covenant written on our hearts; it came about also "by the power of the eternal Spirit." The nature of this Spirit we have already seen fully in the second part of this work. It is the Spirit of freedom (2 Cor. 3:17), of love (1 Cor. 13), of joy, of peace, of forbearance, and of gentleness (Gal. 5:22ff.). It does not make us into slaves (torturing ourselves), but into sons of God, and calls out from within us "Abba" (Rom. 8:15). A will to self-destruction is totally at odds with the working of this Spirit. If Christ surrendered himself in this Spirit, then his sacrifice cannot in any way be seen as (indirect) self-destruction. The working of the Spirit after Easter throws the decisive light on the innermost mystery of Christ's will in his passion. The Spirit is never a spirit of aggression or self-aggression; (4) it works rather from within the victims of violence; it stands by the persecuted in their need and protects them from inner subjection to their adversaries (Mark 13:11 and parallels).
For the true understanding of Christ's sacrifice we must consequently look for a different solution from that of self-destruction. The persistent question is this: how was the crucified one able to identify himself with the actions of his opponents (condemnation and crucifixion) if he did not wish (indirectly) to destroy himself? Ethnology and the study of sacrificial cults in the different religions point not only to the act of killing but also to the important theme of transformation: through the killing there occurs a transformation from the profane to the sacred. Can this track perhaps take us further? One of the most central ideas in Maximus the Confessor's doctrine of redemption can as a matter of fact he understood as an analogous development of such a view. The Greek theologian and confessor says that Christ on the cross altered the "use of death." (5) By this he means that death, which was brought by God after the fall into the garden of Eden as punishment against human nature, was transformed by the crucified one into a means of salvation from sin. (6) Maximus, in order to arrive at this conclusion, directly compared the garden of Eden and the cross with one another. The profound significance of his formulation should appear even more clearly if it is understood in the light of the two opposing intentions for acting which were at work in the event of the cross. Jesus' judges and his executioners wanted to punish a criminal; he himself on the other hand wanted to give himself, as the Last Supper sayings show, for the many. These two intentions stand in contradiction to each other. It follows that if Jesus was able to identify himself with the actions of his opponents, then this was possible only because he thereby managed at the same time to transform their actions.
The crucified one saw in his opponents people who ultimately did not know what they were doing, who, because of blindness, even in their actions were more victims than responsible agents. He himself was a victim insofar as he was killed and they were victims in killing, insofar as they were under the spell of an external power. For him, then, killing was an act done both to him and to them, even if in very differing ways. Both together were victims of that power which in fact kills: sin. At this deeper level, Jesus no longer stood over against his opponents, but he underwent together with them the blows of a destructive power, but in such a way that he alone experienced this suffering for what it was. Through his identification with his executioners, he suffered together with them the being killed by sin. Because of this common destiny, Paul can rightly say: "One has died for all; therefore all have died" (2 Cor 5:14).
The "conversion" and transformation of evil began with Jesus including his opponents in his being killed, and thus consciously living through on their behalf that dimension in their action which enables us to say that the act of crucifying him was in fact something suffered. But he had not yet achieved the decisive act, for suffering would only have had a positive sense if we had to assume that God directly, willed such suffering as a punishment, which, however, we have already excluded. The crucial point was the transformation of passivity through his surrender. Because of his unreserved acceptance of the suffering which came to him, it was already more than something merely undergone. Suffering which is affirmed becomes a new form of activity.
All the synoptic Gospels on the one hand emphasize the suffering of the crucified one and on the other they clearly describe his dying as an activity. We find in Mark: "Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed out the Spirit [exepneusen, usually translated "expired"]" (Mark 15:37; Matt. 27:50). The loud cry was an expression of the most extreme desolation, and with the breathing out of his Spirit he indicated at the same time a revelatory event (Mark 1:11; 9:7) which went out from Jesus as bearer of the Spirit. The breathing out of the Spirit is made even clearer in Luke: "And Jesus cried loudly, 'Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit'" (Luke 23:46). Suffering is here understood unambiguously as surrendering and handing over the Spirit to the Father. Since Luke describes Jesus at the beginning of his ministry as the long awaited bearer of the Spirit (Luke 4:16-22; Acts 4:27; 10:38), the return of the Spirit to the Father means at the same time the fulfillment of the mission. The act of dying, the fulfillment of the mission, and the handing over of the Spirit to the Father consequently come together in the one event described by the letter to the Hebrews as the sacrifice of Christ.
Whoever in dying places himself in the hands of another person renounces entirely any further self-determination and hands himself over to the treatment of this other, to whom he thereby entrusts himself without reserve in love. Every act of surrender made during a person's life has its limits, arising at the least from the demands of one's own life and one's own identity. At the moment of dying, these limits can be broken down. But since in death all a person's strengths fail, death in itself is extremely ambiguous. Is it merely the passive undergoing of an inexorable limit, or can there be a surrender which goes beyond all previous limits? From the viewpoint of ordinary human experience, no clear answer is possible. However Jesus surrendered himself "by the power of the eternal Spirit" (Heb. 9:14) and, dying, entrusted his Spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46). Since the Spirit which he laid in the hands of the Father was at once his human spirit and the divine spirit bestowed on him, he was able completely to transform the ambiguous human act of dying, which is above all something suffered, into an act of surrender.
Whoever no longer determines himself by his own spirit, but entrusts this to the heavenly Father in order to allow himself to be totally determined by him, achieves a sort of openness and availability which go beyond our earthly experience and can only he hinted at by parables. The image of the clay with which the potter works can give a clue to this readiness to be shaped, and yet the one dying on the cross was much more than clay, for it was with his whole being and above all with his free will that he became a totally available "material." What at first appeared only negative in the "victim situation" was transformed with his death into a limitless opening of himself and making himself available, an abandonment of himself and total trust. His dying as total act of handing over already contains agreement in advance to that imminent sovereign action of the Father, which was realized in the resurrection of the crucified one. His will allowed itself to open up through obedience in suffering to a complete uniting in love with the will of the Father.
The will of Jesus in his passion (Heb. 10:10) has appeared to us under a double aspect: (1) as identification with his opponents, insofar as they themselves are victims; (2) as "conversion" and transformation of evil in surrender. Under the first aspect we can see Christ's love for enemies, insofar as he preferred, faced with his own will to survive, to share their destiny and to suffer in advance on their behalf those consequences of sin which necessarily result from it. This will to identification bore salvation to the extent that it was a presupposition for the second: the conversion and transformation of evil action in love. He turned the radical delivering of himself to his enemies, as he experienced this in being executed, into a radical surrender to his Father. Christ never consented to the lies and killing which constitute sin, but rather he dared to suffer the concrete sinful deeds (as being killed by sin) to the point where he was transformed precisely by them into a limitless surrender. Through his identification with his opponents he also infiltrated their world in which their evil will had imprisoned itself and by his transforming power opened it up once again from its new depths to the heavenly Father. Hell, toward which they were already bent, was once more broken open. What at first seemed to be something purely negative, as the rejection of love and closing in on oneself, was transformed by Christ into a surrender which bursts all dimensions of earthly existence. He is therefore both scapegoat and lamb of God; he is the one who is the one slain and the bread of life; he is the one made into sin and the source of holiness.
We asked whether it is right, in connection with Christ, to speak of a reorientation of aggression against himself, of a participation in the self-judgment of sinners, and of an (indirect) self-killing. The answer came out unambiguously negative. What appeared at first to point in that direction is seen after more precise analysis as an expression of his great love for sinners, by which he infiltrated their world. But this still leaves unexplained how Jesus during his public ministry could utter sayings which nevertheless give the impression that he summoned or appealed to self-aggression. These sayings can, however, be understood if we remember the power of sin which is so ingenious that it even knows how to make use of the command which opposes it. Sin only really becomes inflamed in direct opposition. Jesus therefore did not generally make a frontal attack on evil, but even during his public ministry he indicated how it should be dealt with and infiltrated in different ways. In the narrative of the woman taken in adultery who was caught red-handed, even he, if we follow his actual words, gives the instruction to throw stones at the guilty woman. But because he adds the condition that each one who condemns should apply the same standard to himself ("Whoever among you is without sin throw the first stone at her" [John 8:7]), his verbal instruction to kill has the exactly opposite effect in the actual context ("When they heard his answer, they left one after the other, beginning with the eldest" [John 8:9]). If Jesus had answered his opponents with a yes or a no, they would have charged him. A direct answer, whether yes or no, would have heightened their aggression. But, by taking up his opponents' suggestion of stoning, and turning it around in an unexpected way, he let their evil intention drain away.
We should understand in a similar way his call, to which we have already referred, to tear out or cut off a member of the body. In the Sermon on the Mount, the corresponding saying comes immediately after that about adultery, in which Jesus again leaves the crucial conclusion to his hearers. He mentions first what Scripture says on this subject, and then for his part he only establishes that the situation named in the law is already present in a lustful look ("Whoever even looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" [Matt. 5:28]). The conclusion for the hearer is on the one hand clear and on the other leaves the decisive issue open. Each one should guard against the lustful look; each one should equally guard against condemning others for adultery, for who can claim for himself that he has never by a lustful look done the evil thing which he reproaches in others?
"If your right eye leads you astray, then tear it out and throw it away!" (Matt. 5:29). But how should the right eye or the right hand lead astray and not equally the left? And even if the one member was violently removed, would not the other carry on leading the person astray? Jesus expresses what should be done in all logic. But at the same time he makes clear from the harshness of the consequences that there is nothing positive to be achieved in this direction, and that the problem should be approached from a more fundamental angle. In another passage, the saying about cutting off a member is directly linked with the warning about leading little ones astray (Matt. 18:6-11; Mark 9:42-48). Are the people who are led astray by their members ultimately identical with the little ones who are ruled by a different law in their members (see Rom. 7:23)? Unambiguous answers are not possible here. But that is precisely why, given the subtlety of sin, there can be no really permanent remedy against it. Like the image of bloody sacrifice, the image of self-aggression can be used to point to depths where only the power of the Spirit can find the appropriate distinctions each time.
1. Theissen (1977), 96-101.
2. Ibid., 97.
3. There were some in the Council of Trent who viewed Melchizedek differently and spoke of two sacrifices: in the Last Supper Christ acted as high priest according to the order of Melchizedek (bread and wine), while on the cross he gave himself over as high priest according to the order of Aaron (blood sacrifice). See Power (1987), 82-88.
4. See Girard (1988), 281-300.
5. Maximus the Confessor, Thal. 61 (PG 90: 633AD, 636CD).
6. See Schwager, "Das Mysterium der übernatürlichen Natur-Lehre," in Schwager (1986), 47f.