Rich Paxson

The Isenheim Altarpiece shows Jesus dying on the cross. Roman governor Pilate ordered crucifixion for Jesus, who Pilate saw as a common criminal, a seditious rebel. The people surrounding the cross represent various prominent persons in Jesus’s life. However, the picture does not show us a moment in time, but rather makes a statement about a moment in time.

The most common contemporary interpretation of Jesus death on the cross is that God required Jesus’s death so that God could forgive the sins of humankind incurred through its unceasing sinfulness. God’s vengeance towards humankind was satisfied once and for all when Jesus gave his life in satisfaction of humankind’s infinite and unforgivable debt to God.

James, however, writes that there is no vengeful God demanding satisfaction of any debt. The vengeful God theory is a medieval interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’s death on the cross, which obscures the real meaning of his crucifixion. Jesus’s death on the cross is equivalent to the slaughter of a perfect lamb at the beginning of an annual First Temple liturgy of atonement.

The high priest sprinkles the blood of a slaughtered lamb on the place and people of the liturgy. The blood of the lamb symbolizes God’s prevenient and eternal love making the liturgy possible in the first place. Jesus’s crucifixion, rather than paying a debt, points toward God’s constant love, forever at work redeeming material reality from the messes created through the unceasing mimetic agency of human rivalry.