One of the leading doctrines of atonement is that Jesus, whilst on the cross, took the wrath of God deserved for us upon Himself. But is this view supported by the context or are we assuming too much?
Propitiation and Expiation are two words you’re likely to have heard if you’ve ever been in a discussion about the atonement and what it means for us. Propitiation is the idea that the atonement has satisfied God’s wrath and attitude towards sin and God has thereby withheld the punishment we justly deserve. On the other hand, expiation is the theory that through the atonement sin is effectively erased by either covering or cleansing us in the blood of Jesus, making us a non-target for His wrath.
Throughout Christian history, the atonement and how it works has been debated time and again, but at first glance, it’s difficult to tell exactly why the two ideas are seen to oppose each other. Expiation is just an effective function of propitiation for it can be said that God’s wrath can be satisfied if the object of that wrath is removed. The two theories aren’t mutually exclusive. The question then is: how do we reconcile the wrath of God with the atonement. Was it poured out on Jesus or was it merely let go and forgotten?
Critics of the propitiation view passionately object to its cruel premise of an angry God punishing His innocent son for crimes we committed. The term “divine child abuse” isn’t thrown around lightly and it can and has distanced many people from the faith altogether.
On the other end, atheist critics raise objections of their own as they laugh and scoff at the idea of propitiation.
In addition to the meme’s lack of understanding regarding the hypostatic union and affirmation of the false doctrine of the trinity, the problem with this idea is that nowhere in the New Testament or the Old do we find the idea of Jesus suffering (or coming to suffer) the wrath of God. Jesus was forgiving sins long before any placating of God’s wrath (Luke 7:48) and is there no parallel to this in any view of propitiation in the OT.
What we need then is a different understanding of what propitiation means because as it is typically understood, there seem to be elements in the Bible that directly contradict it. If we view propitiation as nothing more than a form of appeasement then we will only be met with objections such as those above, but the word also has a semantic range that includes the ideas of being merciful and showing grace.
In the typical view of propitiation, Jesus is said to have shown mercy to the unrighteous. Mercy is seen today as showing pity or compassion on the target of wrath and withholding a punishment that is justly deserved if they do the right thing, which would be believing. But in the social world of the Bible, the word has a vastly different meaning. Pilch and Malina in their Handbook of Biblical Social Values render mercy as showing steadfast love and justification to those who did and would do nothing to deserve it.
The writings of the Hebrew Bible frequently relate steadfast love and covenant (Deut 7: 9– 12; 1 Kgs 8: 23; 2 Chr 6: 14; Neh 1: 5; 9: 32; see also Pss 25: 10; 89: 28; 106: 45; Isa 54: 10; Dan 9: 4). The reason is that the basis for this sort of debt of interpersonal obligation is a covenant or contract between unequals: between conqueror and conquered, between parents and their child( ren), between husband and wife (wives), between patron and client, between helper and accident victim. In each case, the superior party gives life to or sustains the life of the inferior one; persons thus are said “to receive mercy” (Rom 11: 30– 31; 1 Tim 1: 13; Heb 4: 16; 1 Pet 2: 20).
Pilch, John J.. Handbook of Biblical Social Values, Third Edition (Matrix: The Bible in Mediterranean Context 10) (Kindle Locations 2689-2691). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
The heart of mercy or propitiation is the establishment of a covenant to those who have no means to enter into it on their own. Thus, propitiation isn’t merely the appeasement of God’s wrath and His attitude toward sin to that people would have a chance to do what is right, rather, it is the means that God has provided to enter into a covenant relationship with Him to save us from His wrath. Jesus made the way by giving His life away and by suffering shame, separation from his Father, and death. In return, He has saved us and made peace with us through His blood that was shed and this is not made effective by any works of our own, including belief. Objections to propitiation, from both believers and skeptics, which paint the atonement as nothing more than a violent and angry sacrifice from God to Himself, are off the mark.