A Nonviolent Reading of The Letter to the Hebrews and The Revelation of John
From Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

[This essay relates to the book Guided by the Faith of Christ by Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.]

The Letter to the Hebrews

Some hold that The Letter to the Hebrews supports sacrificial violence, but I think a close reading suggests otherwise. The letter’s author wrote, “For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (10:4; see also 9:9, 9:12-13). What will take away sins, if not animal sacrifices? I want to examine Hebrews 10:8-18 closely in an attempt to answer this question. Hebrews 10:8-10 reads:

When he said above, “Thou hast neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Lo, I have come to do thy will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

The writer of this passage has argued that the unsatisfactory, old sacrifices under the law have been replaced by “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ.” The crucial question is this: Who made the offering? I think the text suggests that Jesus offered to have himself sacrificed.

Verse 10:11 reiterates that animal sacrifices cannot expiate sins: “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” Hebrews 10:12-13 reads, “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet.” I think verse 10:12 describes Jesus’ sacrifice as a self-sacrifice. This interpretation makes sense theologically, if we regard God as good. An alternative interpretation is that Jesus was sacrificed by humans, which leads to the awkward conclusion that God justified humanity via an act of scapegoating and murder. Another interpretation is that Jesus was sacrificed by God, but this interpretation would portray God as one who had killed not only an innocent man, but a man who was, according to Christian tradition, also God’s beloved son.

Verse 10:13 describes Christ waiting “until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet.” I see the “enemies” as the “principalities” and “powers” (Ephesians 6:12); and Jesus’ way of love will ultimately triumph, because the forces of evil are self-destructive. (1) Jesus had said that Satan’s attempt to cast out Satan divides the house and the house cannot stand (Mark 3:23-25; Luke 11:17-18). Jesus’ followers must only wait for that to happen. This view offers a way to understand 1 Corinthians 15:24-26, which reads:

Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Death is the ultimate enemy, because fear of death profoundly influences our thoughts and feelings. This fear underlies scapegoating and oppressive, unjust taboos, such as those that give sacred status to “every authority and power” that rules by violence or threat of violence. Paul described Jesus’ resurrection as a triumph over death, which Jesus’ followers will also experience. Whether or not resurrection refers to everlasting life following the body’s demise, we can triumph over death while on earth if we experience rebirth in Christ. This can provide a sense of affinity with the immortal God, which in turn can help us refuse to allow fear of death to dictate our lives.

Verse 10:14 of Hebrews states, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” A Girardian understanding of this verse is that Jesus has made the single self-offering that, once made, reveals that “sacred” violence is unnecessary. Jesus has demonstrated that we are loved and forgiven by God, which means that we are “perfected” in God’s eyes. How do we become “sanctified”?

Verses 15-18 clarify:

And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts [see Jeremiah 31:33], and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these [sins], there is no longer any offering for sin.

Guided by the Holy Spirit, God’s laws will be on our hearts and minds. If we embrace the love and forgiveness that these laws embody and repent of our sinful ways, we will be sanctified. We will have no need or desire to engage in sacrificial violence to feel sanctified.

Many Christians have interpreted Hebrews 10:8-18 to mean that the old covenant has been replaced by a new covenant formed by the divinely ordained sacrifice of Jesus. A reasonable alternative interpretation is that the old sacrificial order has been abolished and replaced by a new order, in which people have been sanctified by obedience to God (see Romans 12:1). This view respects the biblical text while seeing God as centered on love rather than violence. According to this analysis, Jesus’ death was not a sacrifice to atone for sins but rather one of many ways in which his life was sanctified by virtue of his choosing to do God’s will. What was God’s will? I think that God’s will was that Jesus would help reconcile creation by taking away “the sin of the world” (John 1:29) That is, Jesus’ actions would seek to end the killing of innocent individuals. Jesus chose the only nonviolent way to take away the sin of the world, which was to use his teachings, life, and death to expose “sacred” violence as unjust and contrary to God’s will.

Support for this view of Jesus’ death as a self-sacrifice to end all sacrifices comes from the preceding chapter in Hebrews:

Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (9:25-26).

The writer of this passage says that, according to former sacrificial order, sacrifice needed to be repeated yearly. The reason was that people needed to regularly transfer their sins onto the scapegoat which, the writer noted, is what had been happening since the foundation of the world. The writer also observes that the priest shed “blood not his own” – forcing animals to suffer the consequences of human sinfulness. The writer then points out that Jesus sacrificed himself in order to end all sacrifices. Similarly, the writer previously noted, “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (Hebrews 7:27).

Earlier sacrifices involved repeated, ritual killings of unwilling victims. As discussed previously, a Girardian reading indicates that Jesus chose to accept his destiny and to sacrifice himself for all creation. Jesus did not surrender to death, but rather he chose to die to serve God’s will. This view accords with John 10:18, which reads, “No one takes it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my father.” Jesus’ self-sacrifice, by revealing “sacred” violence as an offense against God, made all future sacrificial violence not only unnecessary but also undesirable.

Michael Hardin has noted that, in offering himself, Jesus assumed the role of the priest without consigning anyone else to become a victim. (2) Regarding Jesus’ death as a self-sacrifice helps us gain a nonsacrificial understanding of Hebrews 9:22 which reads, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Keeping in mind the letter’s critique of the sacrificial system, the author has criticized the law for appearing to justify “sacred” violence. (3)

What about those who have gained knowledge about sin, yet continue to participate in victimizing innocent individuals? The author of Hebrews wrote, “For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment” (Hebrews 10:26-27).

This, I think, is why Hebrews relates:

But you have come to Mount Zion . . . and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more
graciously than the blood of Abel. (12:22, 24)

The blood of Abel calls for vengeance; the “more gracious” blood of "Jesus calls for mercy and forgiveness.(4) Hebrews encourages us to follow Jesus’ example regarding sacrifice – not to kill innocent individuals but rather to offer self-sacrifices in the form of words and deeds:

Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God (Hebrews 13:15-16; see also Hebrews 10:24, 12:14, 13:1-3).

As with Hebrews, many people have interpreted The Revelation to John to endorse violence, but I think this view is mistaken.

The Revelation to John

Many people have found Revelation’s apocalyptic vision appealing. It depicts destruction of this world of suffering replaced by a new, better realm for God’s people. This image can comfort people whose lives are filled with stress or misery and who believe they are among God’s elect. Many understand Revelation as promising ultimate victory for God’s “good” people and, equally satisfying to many people, the comeuppance for “evil” people. I have yet to meet a person of any faith who, believing in a future apocalypse, does not also believe that they are among those who will enjoy everlasting bliss. Another reason that many Christians have found Revelation attractive is that those bent on “holy war” in God’s name claim support from Revelation’s imagery.
Indeed, Revelation features many images of war and death that appear to come at the hands of God and God’s forces. However, I think one can faithfully and reasonably receive Revelation in ways that accord with “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 4:16).

Evidently, Revelation’s author, John the Seer, sought both to encourage those who were victims of Roman persecution and to fortify those who would likely find themselves traumatized by the anticipated conflict between God’s empire and that of humanity (then represented by the Roman Empire). (5) When Revelation was written, its readers were familiar with the genre of apocalyptic literature such as that found in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Gospels, and Paul’s epistles. (6) These readers likely understood that Revelation uses metaphors and should not, as they are by some Christians today, be taken literally.

I find Revelation consistent with an image of Jesus as nonviolent. In Chapter 5, John the Seer describes the one who is “worthy to open the scroll and break its seals” (5:2). An elder told John to expect the Lion of Judah, a traditional symbol of military power. Instead, John the Seer wrote, “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6). People have always wanted to identify with the lion, who has control over life and death. According to a Girardian view of the Bible, God desires that we choose the lamb as our model. The lamb, who is often the victim of scapegoating violence, never victimizes anyone.

Although there are images in Revelation that might seem to endorse violence, alternative understandings are reasonable. For example:

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting  against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but  they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth . . . And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony (12:7-9, 11).

To my reading, the “war” was won by the voluntary sacrifice of the slain lamb and the testimony of his followers, who proved victorious without killing their opponents.

Revelation 19 and 20 describe the final confrontations, which many Christians have understood to depict heaven at war with satanic earthly forces. Interestingly, the “sword with which to smite the nations” (19:15) comes from the mouth of “Faithful and True,” who sat upon a white horse (19:11-12). There is similar imagery later: “And the rest were slain by the sword of him who sits upon the horse, the sword that issues from his mouth” (19:21; see also 1:16, 2:12, 2:16). It is reasonable to regard the Word of God as the “sword” coming from his mouth, particularly because a sword is an image for the Word of God in Ephesians 6:17 and Hebrews 4:12. Words alone cannot commit acts of violence, but truthful words can unleash widespread violence that has been kept in check by periodic smaller doses of scapegoating violence grounded on lies. Jesus acknowledged that his teachings would disrupt families and larger communities (see Matthew 10:34-37; Luke 12:51-53), but ultimately only communities maintained by love and truth are stable and just. Because Jesus’ words undermined the scapegoating process, John the Seer anticipated great violence before the advent of peace.

Gil Bailie has noted that “apocalypse” means “unveiling.” He has suggested that sanctioned violence has been veiled by religious or historical justifications that give such violence an appearance of respectability, unlike unsanctioned violence, which people call “crime.” Jesus unveiled “sacred” violence, revealing that God does not want sacrifices or other kinds of violence. Once people stop regarding sanctioned violence as “justice” or “righteousness,” all violence seems the same. All violence then incites reciprocal violence, and the forces of evil eventually destroy each other. (7)

I agree with Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther that Revelation is both descriptive and predictive. The early Christian churches faced real persecution from the Romans, and they anticipated greater struggles as they rejected the Roman Empire in favor of God’s realm.(8) In addition to official sanctions from the government, the early Christians risked social ostracism. John the Seer encouraged readers to contemplate the day when righteous people will prevail after the forces of evil had destroyed themselves. Revelation 21:1-6 describes “a new Jerusalem” in which there is “a new heaven and a new earth” where “God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more” (21:3-4), which accords with Isaiah 11:6-9. According to Howard-Brook and Gwyther, Revelation taught that those who resist earthly authorities and place God at the center of their world are experiencing this new Jerusalem, even if their lives remain difficult. The ultimate victory of the reign of God has been assured by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

It has seemed to me that many Christians who see Revelation as describing divinely ordained violence against satanic forces regard God as wrathful and violent. Evidently, they generally think that God demands blood sacrifices to atone for sin, and that Jesus’ death was necessary to atone for the sin of the world (John 1:29). Many equate the sin of the world with Adam’s original sin, which, they claim, all humanity has inherited. There are problems with this theory, which I discuss in the book Guided by the Faith of Christ.

  1. Webb, Eugene. 2005. “René Girard and the symbolism of religious Sacrifice.” Anthropoetics 11 (1). Available on the Internet at www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap1101/webb.htm, last accessed March 23, 2015.
  2. I thank Cindi McAndrew, Gary Neitzke, and Paul Dobberstein for helpful commentary on Hebrews 10:13, which they provided at the Girardian discussion list [email protected]
  3. Hardin, Michael. “Sacrificial Language in Hebrews: Reappraising René Girard,” in Swartley, William M., ed. 2000. Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking. Telford, PA: Pandora Press, pp. 103-119.
  4. Ibid., p. 114.
  5. Ibid., p. 111.
  6. Howard-Brook, Wes and Anthony Gwyther 2000. Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now. New York: Maryknoll, pp. 117-118.
  7. Ibid., pp. xxvii-xxviii, 148-149.
  8. Bailie, Gil. 1997. Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads. New York: Crossroad Publishing, p. 15.