The Doctrine of the Scapegoat: A Parallel between the Devil and Jesus

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 We are all, or at least we should be, familiar with the concept of the scapegoat. In the modern world the term is typically associated with an individual or group of people on whom all of the blame for society’s ills is placed. This person or group is then ostracized from the larger community or even put to death. A fantastic example of this in action is right-wing opinions of homosexuals and feminists, on whom they place the blame for the decline of western society and the degradation of marriage.

Our modern concept of the scapegoat has its roots in Biblical times, both literally and figuratively.  In its literal execution, during Yom Kippur, the Jewish “Day of Atonement,” the high priest would lay the sins of people upon a goat’s head and loose it into the wilderness. Sad as it was for the goat, I am more interested in the figurative execution of the Biblical scapegoat.  Most specifically, in two particular figures, who are, arguably, the most important figures in western religion: The Devil and Jesus. Undoubtedly, many of you are wondering how I could possibly draw a parallel between The Devil and Jesus; one is the manifestation of all evil and one is the manifestation of redemption and God’s eternal love for humanity. If you missed the answer within that description, then read on…

First, let us explore the generally accepted images of the Devil and Jesus in Christian theology and mythology (yes, Christianity has a mythology):

The Devil, once called Lucifer according to many versions of this Christian myth, was God’s most beloved angel. Lucifer’s high rank and closeness to God made him prideful, believing himself special in all of creation he rebelled against God. When God created humanity, Lucifer saw how much God loved them and he became envious. So, Lucifer devised a plan to turn God against His new creation: he takes the form of a serpent, sneaks into Eden and, well, we are all familiar with the story of the fall (if not, read it here). God, who is enraged at Lucifer’s rebellion and trickery, then strips him of his rank and title and throws him into the bowels of hell. From then on, so goes the story, the Devil and his minions move among humanity, planting seeds of sin within our hearts and minds and tempting us to go against God’s word.

Conversely, we have the image of Jesus as it is generally accepted in Christian theology, which is that of  God in the flesh, who has come, according to 1 John 3:8, to destroy the work the Devil by leading humanity to the ultimate path to salvation. And, ultimately, how is Jesus to accomplish this? Well, that answer lies in another of Jesus’ images, one that is, for the purpose of this post, the most important image of Jesus in Christian theology,  that of the lamb of God. Now, for those of us who are familiar with ancient Judaism, the sacrifice of a lamb was, among other things, an important element in the Jewish ritual of atonement.  The symbolism conveyed by referring to Jesus as “the lamb of God” is of course intentional. Jesus, according to Christianity, was meant to die for the sins of humanity

While it seems, at least at first, that each of these figures serves a drastically different purpose, if you look more closely, they have something profoundly important in common. Each of them is a figurative scapegoat for humanity’s sins. We place upon each figure the responsibility for the sins of humanity and then we sacrifice them, in one form or another. In the case of the Devil, humanity would have never fallen if not for his manipulation of Eve in Eden, and so we blame him; throughout Christian history, every ill to befall or to be committed by human beings was deemed the work of the Devil. As a result, the Devil is doomed to exist through all of eternity as an outcast, exiled from his home and stigmatized by his fellow creations.  In the case of Jesus, all of humanity’s sins, every infraction and ill-deed against God is placed upon his head as he is sacrificed, in death, for the atonement of humankind.

Both the Devil and Jesus are symbols of humanity’s inability to take full responsibility for our actions and our unwillingness to reflect upon those misdeeds and overcome our individual shortcomings so as to grow and become better people. Why assume responsibility when the Devil made us do it and then Jesus, ever so kindly, paid the fine?

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