We in the Churches of Christ don’t spend much time talking about atonement theory. Rather, our focus has been how the individual appropriates atonement for his own benefit. We focus on the question: “What must I do to be saved?”
Atonement theory, however, asks the opposite question: “What did God do to save us?” Or “Just how is it that we’re saved by the death of Jesus?”
We are a pragmatic people. We tend to think: Why does it matter how it works so long as I know that it works and how to benefit from it? But, of course, we in the Churches of Christ debate endlessly about just how atonement works — we just do it exclusively from the perspective of the convert.
And so it occurs to me that maybe we’ve missed something important. Maybe we should spend more time wondering just how it is that God saves us. After all, to understand the nature of the atonement will surely tell us a great deal about how we should respond to the gift of atonement.
Now, Christians have come up with various answers to just how atonement works over the millennia. It’s well worth the time to consider the theories that Christians have adopted over the centuries.
One of the most common debates in the area is summarized by Scot McKnight as follows:
Back in the 1950s and 1960s C.H. Dodd and L.L. Morris locked horns on this one: Dodd said the term meant “expiate” (as in expiate or remove sins) while Morris said the term meant “propitiate” (as in Jesus’ death resolving and pacifying the wrath of God against sin and sinners). John Stott, in The Cross of Christ, weighed in on this one and sided with Morris, and it has become standard evangelical theology to contend for a propitiatory atonement (penal substitution is a slightly larger, though connected, theological category). Most encounter this evangelical theology in gospel preaching in which the problem is sinners under God’s wrath with the solution being the death of Jesus that resolves that wrath.
Now, the uncomfortable part of the propitiation theory is that it places God and Jesus at odds. God wants his wrath satisfied by damning humans, and Jesus intervenes by offering himself in place of believing humanity. It’s as though Jesus gets in God’s way, when in reality God so loved the world that God gave his one and only Son, you see. God paid the price.
If you make a pagan god angry, you offer a sacrifice to buy him off — to appease him. You see, the Greek and Roman pagans had a very different relationship with their gods than Christians enjoy with the one true God. There was no moral or relational component. Rather, appeasing a pagan god was a purely quid pro quo transaction. Either you made the required sacrifice or you did not.
Therefore, the Greek words for gaining the favor of a god carry the sense of propitiation — of buying off a god’s anger — because that was the pagan system. But when the Jews borrow Greek words for Jewish ideas, the words are best defined based on their usage in the Septuagint, not in the Greek religions.
Thus, to a Greek, hades is the realm of dead ruled by the god Hades. But the Jews used hades to translate Sheol, meaning either the grave or wherever the dead may be — but certainly not the realm ruled by the Greek god Hades!
Similarly, the Greeks used psychē to refer to Platonic soul, being the eternal part of man, eternally pre-existing birth and surviving death due to its inherently immortal nature. But the Jews used psychē to translate nephesh, also meaning “soul,” but the distinctly Jewish sense of soul, that is, the innermost or most essential portion of a human — but certainly not pre-existing and no more immortal that the person himself. Indeed, to a Jew, immortality is not our inherent nature but a gift from God that not everyone receives —
(Rom 2:6-7 ESV) 6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;
(1Co 15:53-54 ESV) 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
Therefore, it’s often a huge mistake to take a Greek word used by a New Testament writer and read into the meaning given it by Greek philosophers and pagan priests. Rather, when the word is found in Jewish literature written in Greek — especially the Septuagint — the New Testament writer is almost certainly borrowing the use from the Septuagint rather than Plato or the priestesses of Diana.
Hence, the words translated “propitiation” best defined from their usage in the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. This was the “scriptures” for most of Paul’s readers. And just as our use of “prodigal” and “redemption” will be forever colored by our use of the New Testament, the uses of hilasmos and such words by Paul and his readers were colored by the Septuagint.
One of the most influential authors favoring the translation “propitiation” is John Stott. In his commentary on Romans, he writes,
We should not be shy of using the word “propitiation” in relation to the cross, any more more than we should drop the word “wrath” in relation to God. Instead, we should struggle to reclaim and reinstate this language by showing that the Christian doctrine of propitiation is totally different from pagan and animistic superstitions.
First … Why was propitiation necessary? The pagan answer is because the gods are bad-tempered, subject to moods and fits, and capricious. The Christian answer is because God’s holy wrath rests on evil. There is nothing unprincipled, unpredictable or uncontrolled about God’s anger; it is aroused by evil alone.
Secondly … Who undertakes to do the propitiating? The pagan answer is that we do. We have offended the gods; so we must appease them. The Christian answer, by contrast, is that we cannot placate the righteous anger of God … But God in his undeserved love has done for us what we could never do for ourselves.
Thirdly … How is propitiation to be accomplished? … The pagan answer is that we have to bribe the gods with sweets, vegetable offerings, animals, and even human sacrifices. The Old Testament sacrificial system was entirely different, since it was recognized that God himself has “given” the sacrifices to the people to make atonement. And this is clear beyond doubt in the Christian propitiation, for God gave his own Son to die in our place, and in giving his Son he gave himself.
(as quoted by Paul Ritchie).
As you can see, properly understood, the idea of atonement arising by propitiation does not paganize Christianity. However, it has been criticized for teaching that Jesus’ sacrifice somehow satisfies God’s bloodlust — which seems to place God and Jesus in opposition to each other or even to make Jesus into a victim of God’s anger.
After all, why is it true that God’s justice demands blood? Why is it that God’s wrath is only resolved by human sacrifice? And these are, I think, entirely fair questions.
To answer them, we begin by studying the New Testament’s use of the word “propitiation” — in the next post.