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.
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. In fact, the Bible gives a different idea of God pouring His wrath upon non-believers than we may have. He simply lets them go on their own way to discover for themselves the death sin brings in the end (Romans 1:18-28). And what of Jesus forgiving sins before any placating of God’s wrath (Luke 7:48)? Neither is there any parallel to this 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. 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 the allowance to enter into a covenant,
“….in Matt 18: 33: “and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” the mercy involved is not simply feelings of compassion for one who suffers unjustly, but paying one’s debt of interpersonal obligation by forgiving a trivial debt. In the conversation after the parable of the Samaritan in Luke 10, the good deed is described as “doing mercy,” that is, doing an act of ḥesed (translated “showing mercy,” 10: 37). God remembers his debts of interpersonal obligation (Luke 1: 54) and “does mercy” (see Luke 1: 50, 72, 78; Rom 12: 8). In a social system where debts of interpersonal obligation are prominent, “Lord, have mercy” means “Lord, pay up your debt of interpersonal obligation,” or “I need your help right now, and you owe me!”’
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 relationship to those who have no means to enter it on their own. Thus, propitiation isn’t merely the appeasement of God’s wrath and His attitude toward sin, rather, it is also the means that God has provided to enter into a covenant with Him to save us from His wrath. Jesus made the way by giving His life away and by suffering shame, separation from God, and death. In return, through the covenant He offers, we can participate in acts of reciprocity, returning grace for grace and in that covenant, the object of wrath is removed, covered by the blood of Jesus. This is fully in line with our view of the atonement (link below). 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.