The Satanic Scandal Versus the Scandal of the Cross

In the Bible, both Jesus and Satan are skandalon, or stumbling stones. The scandal or offense, entraps, snares, obstructs, and causes a fall. It is translated as “cause for stumbling,” “cause of sin,” “difficulty,” “hindrance,” “hindrance in the way,” “make fall,” “pitfall,” “stumbling block,” “temptation,” or “temptation to sin.” The Psalms often revolve around those who would kill by laying their snares (Ps. 38:12), setting a hidden trap (Ps. 140:5), and the trap setters imagine they are hidden (“Who can see us?” (Ps. 64:5)), and this is equated with being an evildoer (Ps. 141:9). Intermixed with all this trap setting is the fact of human desire acting to lure one into the trap, thus Saul uses his daughter Michal as a lure for David (1 Sam. 18:21), Joshua warns that the Canaanites, their idols and presumably intermarrying with them, will be a snare (Josh. 23:13), and so too God warns “their gods shall be a snare” and they shall “become adversaries to you” (Judg. 2:3).[1]

Idolatry is equated with a form of prostitution, and the idols play the role of harlots entrapping worshippers in a deadly embrace (e.g., Ez. 16). The obstacle cause of desire, whether idols, gold, golden idols, sex objects, or golden-phallic-idols, consist of giving a divine like status to an obstacle (the obstacle to true divinity). The idol is a scandal, because it simultaneously takes on a divine role and becomes an obstacle to God. The false transcendence gives rise to an exponential desire, which makes the idol “the quintessential scandal, in the Old Testament,” according to René Girard.[2] Entrapment due to desire, whether unleashed by idols or sex objects – which are often equated by the prophets, indicates that human lust plays a deadly role, creating the skandolon.

Idols are a scandal for the Jews but so are Yahweh (e.g., Is. 8:14-15) and Jesus (Matt. 21:42-43). Falling over either sort of scandal causes an exposure, a failure, or a point of shame. The scandal exposed in idolatry concerns the exponential nature of human desire – it is beyond being satisfied and is inherently deceived. That is, there is no end of this pursuit and no gaining what is sought (Ezekiel 23); thus, it is portrayed as deadly in a three-fold sense: it leads to child sacrifice; it imagines death or the grave (what has no life) can give life; it is connected to shame (a living death). Paul equates works of the law, love of money, or simply greed, with idolatrous desire (Col. 3:5-11; Eph. 5:5; Gal. 4:9) and the Christian who would do such things is annulling the scandal of the cross: “Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished” (Gal. 5:11). Every phase of the life and death of Jesus might be equated with a form of scandal: his encounters with the scribes and Pharisees, his teachings and parables, but most significantly the cross is a scandal (I Cor. 1:23). To miss the key role of the skandalon is to miss the significance of Christ.

The competition between the one whose head is crushed and the one whose heel is bruised (Gen. 3:15) involves all of human history and all humanity. That is, the satanic scandal is not nonhuman but, as in the story in Genesis 3, it is the offense of the autonomous human world, presumed as sufficient (the knowledge of good and evil, the idol, the law, etc.). The provenance of this mysterious serpent, linked to satan (perhaps not Satan, but the satan(s)), is of the earth, and the poison he imparts, John sums up as a singular deadly presumption: “For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world” (I John 2:16-17). The term “cosmos,” which depicts a closed world, is John’s word for capturing this world of lust or desire, which prides itself on the presumption of life. This is of the world – it is earthly and human in its origins and end. This pride of life describes the original temptation, but is the ongoing presumption that life is “my” possession, while simultaneously in the “lust of the eyes” and the “lust of the flesh” the object of desire (life, being, substance) is lacking.

The role of the serpent is not mentioned by either John or Paul, and yet both seem to be referring directly to the Genesis account. In Romans (7:7), the law models desire or plays the serpents role, in giving rise to desire. For John, love of the cosmos gives rise to the lust of the eyes. Like the serpent which appears from the earth and disappears into dust, this desire is earth bound in its instigation and pursuit. To assign a metaphysical reality to this serpent may be to miss the nature of the scandal. Lust and desire arise around the illusion that the object of desire, be it the idol, money, or some desirous other, can impart substance (life, wisdom, being). The turn to violence to extract this substance from the blood of Abel, the blood of Joseph, or the blood of Christ, is the end point of this obsessive desire.

The scandalous lie, in Isaiah and which Paul takes up in Romans, depicts the rulers of Jerusalem entering into a pact with Sheol (the place of the dead) or a “covenant with death.” This is to make “falsehood” a refuge and it is to attempt to hide behind a deception (Is. 28:14-15). Paul repeats this accusation when comparing faith and works pitting faith (the true refuge) against the law (a lying refuge): “but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law.  Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone.” The human race, in the image of Isaiah (repeated by Peter and Paul) have entered a covenant with death, and Christ has annulled the covenant and its effects: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, A costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be put to shame” (Rom. 9:31-33; Is. 28:16). The Romans, like the Galatians, are being lured by a false teacher to trust in the law; to locate life in their doing of the law, rather than in Christ.  Paul fuses two passages from Isaiah, to picture the singular stone as both tripping up those who are “missing the law,” bringing them to shame, while those who have faith (trust in this scandalous stone), will not be put to shame.

The cross is a scandal, in light of the presumed self-sufficiency (of the Genesis lie, of the covenant with death, or the doing of the law), as it exposes the scandalous lie denying the reality of death and desire. This spiritual battle is not devoid of flesh and blood, but culminates when the one who is lifted up casts out the prince of this world, and as a result all of humanity is drawn to the crucified (John 12:32). It is the “lifting up” which reveals Jesus’ identity as the “I am” (YHWH): “So Jesus said, ‘When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He’” (John 8:28). Here is the realization of Isaiah, that through the “lifted up” servant “you may know and believe that I AM” (Isa. 43:10; 52:13). This lifting up is a saving revelation, applied from “In the beginning” of John: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4-5). The darkness of the cross is the end point of the satanic scandal, as the cross reverses and exposes the scandal. The stone of stumbling has become the corner stone of a new living temple (I Peter 2:4-8).

The interplay is between the scandalous lie and the scandalous truth in regard to death, with the stone of stumbling or the scandal serving as either headstone or cornerstone.


[1] The list is from David McCracken, The Scandal of the Gospels: Jesus, Story, and Offense (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) 8.

[2] René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1978), 421.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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