Have you ever heard of a scapegoat?

In philosophy, a scapegoat is someone everyone else decides to blame for all their troubles. If you imagine a pre-industrialized village where all the babies keep dying of a rare influenza, then you might easily imagine the kind of panic and anxiety felt by those villagers. Having tried everything to get rid of the contagion, they find they cannot, and the babies keep dying. The villagers come to think the problem must be more than the flu, and so they single out poor Edith Sunshine. Edith is new to town, young, and pretty. The men have certainly noticed Edith, which means the women have, too. Suddenly, someone realizes the babies took sick sometime (roughly) around Edith’s arrival. She must be a witch! Burn her! And so they do, and for a while they are content to believe the problem has been solved.

At least, until the next baby dies, at which point they’ll have to find a new Edith.

The term scapegoat has biblical origins, rooted in the Day of Atonement rituals as described in Leviticus 16. Once each year, the high priest would confess all the sins of Israel to a goat. The sins were transferred to the goat, so to speak, and it was driven into the wilderness. Thus Israel was cleansed.

A scapegoat, then, is one who takes on the sins of others. Biblically, this referred not only to the cultic ritual described above, but also to the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1.29), for he has carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53.4) and become sin for us (2 Corinthians 5.21).

The point I’d like to make is that Jesus was the last scapegoat. He was blamed for the sins of all in both the philosophical sense (others blamed him) and the theological sense (he willingly accepted that blame). The reason he was the last scapegoat, the final one we ever need recognize, is that his death was not the end of the story. Jesus was resurrected into new life, conquering death, and in so doing, he exposed the violent scapegoating tendencies in the human heart and forced us to realize precisely how much evil we are truly capable of performing. Faced with our own complicity to sacrifice others for our benefit, as though we were looking into a mirror showing us how morally hideous we have become, we recoil from our sinful nature and embrace God and his plan to heal the world. Jesus’ victory, then, is the starting point for his present work in the world, where—through his Spirit—he continues to triumphantly break down sin’s power and deify men.

Through Christ, we are called more than conquerors (see Romans 8). We are not simply beneficiaries of his victory, but participants in his war on sin, both internally, in our own hearts against our own sinful nature, and externally, against the powers of darkness arrayed in the world. What does this mean for us?

Two things, initially. First, we must refuse to blame others—especially God—for the sins (and their consequences) we have personally performed. No one got us into the mess we’re in but us. The good news is God will help us get out of it. Second, we must thank God for his mercy in this regard and endeavor to assist him in all possible ways, so evil is uprooted both internally and externally as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.