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.

Mimetic Desire Giving Rise to Sin: René Girard and Exposure of the Scandalous Lie

René Girard was insulted with “Girardian Theory” as a description of his work, as mimesis, which is central to every phase of his work, is a well-known phenomenon, recognized from Plato onward in western philosophy and thought.[1] It is not as though Girard discovers mimesis, but he uncovers the logic of mimetic desire in the model of desire, the obstacle cause of desire (the skandolon), and ultimately the founding murder and sacrificial religion. Girard calls his project “mimetic theory” as the entirety of his thought, whether on the novel, anthropology, religion, or theology, is a prolonged description of the workings and logic of human desire, which is mimetic or an imitation (desire is not our own, but what draws into community). Its mimetic quality gives rise to and explains the range of interpersonal dynamics, from envy, pride, rivalry, violence, scapegoating, sacrificial religion, and in turn is a key point in understanding the Judeo-Christian religion in its exposure of this dynamic.

On a surface level the arc of the theory is easy to summarize but may not be convincing, as its inner logic depends upon recognizing the nature of desire which has each of us in its grip and which we have a vested interest in misrecognizing. That is, we are all implicated in this story, and unless we recognize this by penetrating our own self-deception, it is not only Girard, but his identification of the heart of the New Testament, that may fail to impress.

The problem is two-fold. First, the lie surrounding desire is the notion that desire originates within us. It is “my desire” and this is the most private and intimate thing about me. Isn’t desire an expression of my inmost self, arising spontaneously from what is the very center of personhood? The desiring subject, though kept hidden, is taken to be the true subject. An imitated desire, under this definition, is inauthentic and is unbelievable. Corporately and individually amidst the worst forms of evil, as Jesus pointed out from the cross, we do not know what we are doing. We cannot get a handle on the truth, as there is disability in identifying the scandal (the cause of sin) giving rise to human desire.

Second, though envy, jealousy, inadequacy, shame and pride are a universally recognizable part of human experience, there is also the profound sense, as with desire, that these are peculiar and private. This is so personal and shameful, we are unlikely to admit this truth to ourselves, let alone to other people. The tendency is to obscure the underlying feeling of emptiness, of not being enough, of lacking in being, giving rise to desire. To put it in biblical terms (recently rediscovered in psychology), shame is an unbearable experience which requires it be hidden in pride. This truth is hard to bear and describe but is so recognizably the case, which explains the key role of the modern novel in Girard’s discovery.

Anyone who has tried to write about themselves may understand the temptation to flattery and deception – everything rings hollow and false. There is a reason hagiography was and is the predominant form of biography and autobiography and has been for millennia. Inflation, a façade, is much easier to accomplish, and perhaps less painful, than truth. Truth can be sordid, dark, painful to read, and painful to write, yet the best novels touch upon a truth that is immediately recognizable.

The compressed development of the “I” novel in modern Japan illustrates the point, that a certain masochistic destructiveness takes hold in the “confessional novel,” making it the most dangerous profession in Japan (due to suicide). The truth of the human condition can become overwhelming (especially in the Japanese novel which is often entirely lacking in redemptive elements). Likewise, reading Dostoevsky is not hard, simply “because of all the names,” but because the depth of darkness is hard to endure. Envy, rivalry, lust, murderous intent, and the pride that prevails in the human condition reaches uncomfortable levels of intimacy. The best fiction takes up a realism that dispels romanticism and which reduces most mere history (personal or corporate) to a form of fiction.

According to the histories of the novel, this modern literary art form takes as its point of departure and development entry into human interiority presumed throughout Scripture. As Erich Auerbach and others have pointed out, from Genesis forward, the literature of the Bible is developing a technique of interiority which will only be fully appreciated and deployed in the modern novel. The “violation of consciousness” or the presumption to enter into human interiority is the working premise of Scripture, taken up in the modern art form. What separates second rate literature from literary masterpieces is the capacity to deal truthfully with human interiority. According to Girard, the “romantic lie” is thoroughly exposed by “novelistic truth”[2] and this novelistic truth is afforded through biblical revelation.

The romantic lie is a manifestation of the singular lie that life, substance and being reside within. The serpent of Genesis models a form of desire, in which divine life is graspable and consumable. The mediation of desire in the tree of knowledge, is the obstacle to its realization (divine life). It is an obstacle to the fulfillment of the promised desire, but the failure of the lie is not its exposure, but a doubling down on extracting life from death. The scandal initiated by the serpent identifies the role of Satan. Satan is the “adversary” or the original fabricator of the obstacle to desire through misdirection of the lie.

Christ directly identifies Peter with Satan and the scandal, as Peter is caught up in human desire in his attempt to misdirect Jesus away from the cross: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block (scandal) to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” His specific guilt is imitating the crowd (saving himself, as evidenced in the High Priest’s courtyard), rather than imitating Christ: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Mt 16:24–25).

Mimesis is not inherently sinful, but the scandalous model becomes an obstacle, unlike the model of Christ. Cain kills able to obtain his place before God. Lamech is a serial murderer, as he would reap divine vengeance and take the place of God. The generation of Noah is consumed by mimetic desire and rivalry until all differences are drowned in sameness. The desire prompted by the lie is exponential. Participation in the divine life is not through extracting life from death (violence, scapegoating, crucifixion) but through taking up the cross. Jesus explanation to those who would kill him is that they are caught up in a murderous lie: “You belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44). They are carrying out the desires of the devil in their murderous plots.

To ignore the mimetic nature of desire is to miss the fundamental impetus to evil. The role of the “model of desire” and the structuring role of the model turned obstacle (the skandolon), give rise to sin. The obstacle cause of desire, is the direct experience of the lie the New Testament calls the skandolon, or in its verb form, skandalizein. The noun gives rise to the verb or is the cause of sinning. Thus, the New American Bible translates Matthew 5:30: “And if your right hand causes you to sin (skandalizei), cut it off.” 

Excision of the scandal is not accomplished through cutting off the hand, but through crushing the head from which it arose. The murderous logic of mimetic desire is undone in Christ’s exposure of its dynamics.

[1] This is the beginning claim of Michael Joseph Darcy,  (2016). René Girard, Sacrifice, and the Eucharist (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from This dissertation is one of the finest summaries of Girard’s work I have come across.

[2] As Darcy points out, “The French title of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel is Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, or literally, ‘romantic lie and novelistic truth.’” Darcy, 2.