Whenever I tell an atheist or skeptic that God didn’t kill Jesus but we did, they get all riled up, usually saying things like,“I wasn’t there 2,000 years ago…don’t blame me!” Of course, you weren’t there and, no, I’m not saying you personally killed Jesus. All of this misses the point.
It is true that preachers have manipulatively said things like “every sin you commit puts another stripe on Jesus’ back, nailing Him to the cross,” in order to guilt unwary souls into the Kingdom, but that’s not how I mean it either. When I say we killed Jesus I mean that we all belong to the same club as those who actually did. A New Testament word for this “club” is kosmos, or “world.”
There are several ways kosmos is used in the New Testament. In this context it means, “the human sociological realm that exists in estrangement from God.” (See “Jesus Christ: Savior of the World” for further study on this concept.)
Scapegoating (blame-shifting) is foundational to this sociological construct. René Girard did a seminal work on this insidious stronghold in his book, The Scapegoat, tracing the practice all the way back to the beginning of civilization.
According to Girard, whenever things got tense between warring tribes, finding a common enemy was the way bring peace and form these unholy alliances. We see this with Herod and Pilate when Jesus was offered as the scapegoat in order to quell tensions between the religious and political forces working in Jerusalem (see Luke 23:10-12).
Even today, political parties and nations unite when there’s a common enemy (like 9/11). Even when it’s for a just cause, it’s the pattern of this kosmos. But unlike pagan scapegoats, Christ was innocent and He also didn’t stay dead, so the ritual myth was exposed. As Girard points out:
“Christianity is a founding murder in reverse, which illuminates what has to remain hidden to produce ritual, sacrificial religions.” (Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoit Chantre)
For more on scapegoating, read my post, “Religion, Politics, and Scapegoating.”
But the problem with understanding all of this isn’t just with atheists; we Christians have been taught a concept of sin as infractions of rules and punishments for those infractions. Jesus was punished by God in some seemingly arbitrary jurisprudence-based cosmic court, which is more anthropological and medieval than biblical in origin. And, worse, it only deals with the symptoms, not the source.
What is sin, actually?
The Greek word for sin is hamartia (ἁμαρτία). Its etymology is really quite illuminating when you study it out. Hamartia was a common word in the Hellenistic Greek tragedies of Jesus’ day. Its origin probably comes from Aristotle’s Poetics:
“Hamartia refers to the tragic flaw in the character of the protagonist which ultimately leads to his downfall. In most cases, the hero defies a moral law which results in a series of events and unfavorable circumstances leading to his destruction. The result is that the audience instantly feels pity for the main character and is also gripped with fear as he is able to identify with the human nature of the error committed by the tragic hero.” (from “What is Hamartia in Greek Tragedy?“)
Here’s a couple of classic examples of Hamartia in Greek tragedies (from the same article):
“A classic case of Aristotelian hamartia occurs in the tragedies of Oedipus and Antigone when the moral flaws cause a tragic turn in the events of the plot. An example of Oedipus’s hamartia is when he holds Teiresias responsible for plotting the murder of Laius. Antigone insists on burying her brother defying Creon’s law forbidding anyone from doing the same. Antigone’s pride makes her value the eternal law and she buries Polyneices which sets the tragic action of the play.”
The mind behind this tragic flaw, to quote Morpheus, is the world that’s been pulled over our eyes. It’s the fishbowl we’ve been swimming in, and there’s no way out on our own because at the end of the day we’re still stuck inside our own heads. You can read more about sin as a tragic flaw in my post, “Why Jesus? Part Two.”
However you interpret the Adam and Eve story, something tragic happened when our eyes were opened. Good and evil became “us against them.”
So, it’s in this way that I’m saying we killed Jesus. We took part because we all belong to the same kosmos, the same way of living that always does this to pure other-centered, self-giving love.
Why? Because we would rather demonize, even kill our enemies than love them, bury our victims rather than expose ourselves, blame our flaws on someone else rather than own up to them, marginalize the disadvantaged rather than include them, and label and dismiss those we disagree with rather than understand them. It’s this foundational sin that the cross exposes.
As Brian Zahnd put it so well:
“The cross is where all that is wrong with humankind, and the world that together we have built, is dragged into the light where we can see what’s wrong. And it’s also the place where we encounter God’s forgiveness and redemptive alternative that is offered to the world.”‘( Lamb of God – The Last Scapegoat)
You only have to watch the news for five minutes to sense there’s something systemically wrong with the world. That is, if you dare consider it at all. Yet, this tragedy has a happy ending because God is the audience in this drama. And He’s taken pity on us, using humankind’s most horrific invention of torture and humiliation as the means to rescue us from our misguided self-destruction.
10 So if while we were still enemies, God fully reconciled us to himself through the death of his Son, then something greater than friendship is ours. Now that we are at peace with God, and because we share in his life, how much more we will be rescued from sin’s [tragic flaw] dominion!
(Rom.5:10 TPT, brackets and emphasis added)