Saving Easter – part six

Saving_EasterLet’s talk about propitiation. It’s another word that gets confused when talking about our theories of atonement.

This is part six in my special Easter series where we’re taking an alternate look at traditionally held beliefs about Jesus’ atoning work on the cross.

I fully understand that what I’m sharing is going to be difficult to immediately accept, and maybe you’ll never accept it. That’s quite okay with me and up to you.  I told you at the outset that this proverbial rabbit hole goes very deep. But what I’m proposing are not inventions of mine, nor are they modern ideas. These ideas are as old and as orthodox as the church itself. Much older than the popular atonement theory we’ve been taught.

I took a risk by calling this series the provocative title, “Saving Easter.” I did so because I believe our deeply held assumptions about the atonement do need saving from a pagan concept of appeasing an angry god. And that brings us to our study today.

The word “propitiation” shows up in the New Testament in four places (Rom.3:25; Heb.2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). Here’s 1 John 4:10 (bold-type added).

“In this is love, not that we loved God,
but that He loved us and sent His Son
to be the propitiation for our sins.” (NKJV)

If you look up propitiation up in Webster’s dictionary you get the following: “to make (someone) pleased or less angry by giving or saying something desired.” It uses an example of propitiation in a sentence, “He made an offering to propitiate the angry gods.”

Unfortunately, this tells us a lot about how we understand this word, and it fits nicely with Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) theory.

The Greek word for propitiation is ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion). This word was indeed used to describe appeasing angry pagan gods in the ancient Greek world, but it’s not how the Bible used the word. Strong’s concordance defines hilastērion as “the cover of the ark of the covenant, the mercy-seat.”

We can easily see this meaning by looking in the Greek Septuagint passages that speak of the mercy seat in the Old Testament. Here is one example: (bold-type added)

“the tabernacle of witness, and the ark of the covenant,
and the propitiatory that is upon it,
and the furniture of the tabernacle.” (Edox.31:7 LXX)

Pretty straight-forward so far. But when we venture past this point it gets a little foggy. The problem comes when we look at our Bible dictionary’s definition of “mercy seat” (which is the same Greek word, hilastērion).

Strong’s defines “mercy seat” this way (words in brackets added): “relating to an appeasing or expiating [make amends], having placating or expiating force, expiatory; a means of appeasing or expiating…”

Salvation_KennethMyersAs Kenneth Myers points out in his book, Salvation (And How We Got it Wrong), this definition of propitiation should not be interpreted with the pagan understanding of appeasement but the biblical view of sacrifice. Let’s dig a little deeper on that.

The mercy seat, as we know, covered the Ark of the Covenant where the perfect Law was kept that condemned all of us as sinners. Christ is our mercy seat, but not to appease an angry deity. Myers basically sums up what I’ve been saying about this:

“Christ’s sacrifice of Himself was not to the Father, but a sacrifice to rescue us from sin.” (p.101)

We know that the Jewish religious system revolved around animal sacrifices. The problem we have here is that our assumptions about what those animal sacrifices were for cause us to  make wrong conclusions about Jesus’ atoning sacrifice.

For instance, God said over and over that He did not want, nor did He delight in their animal sacrifices. He’s always wanted relationship (Psalm 40:6-8; Isa.1:11; Jer.7:21-22; Hos.6:6). Israel was focused on keeping rules; He was focused on the heart. This is why the greatest commandment that sums up all commandments has nothing to do with burnt offerings, rules, appeasing God–it’s about love in relationship (Mark 12:28-34).

What’s interesting in the book is that Myers asked several Jewish scholars about the purpose of animal sacrifices. What he found out was startling! Basically, the Jews didn’t see sacrifices as actually dealing with sin. The writer of Hebrews agrees (Heb.10:4).

Specifically, Myers asked the Jewish scholars what he had been taught with PSA–that Christ died, (a) in our place, (b) as a payment of a penalty, (c) to appease God’s just wrath, and if that lines up with their general view of atonement. Here’s how he puts what all of them told him without exception (bold-type added on all quotes):

“sacrificing in order to appease God’s anger is a concept completely foreign to them, and they see it as a Christian invention.”  (p.106)

Did you get that? A Christian invention! This is startling because PSA scholars are always pointing to the Jewish sacrificial system as validation of their position. Myers pointed out to these scholars that it was also a modern invention in Christianity, starting with Anselm in the 11th century.

Then he asked them what purpose the animal sacrifices served. Here’s what one of them said:

“Strictly speaking, it makes no logical sense that God needs anything from us nor that by giving God something we can absolve sins. I understand sacrifices by what they cause for the people…” (p.106)

Next, he asked, were animal sacrifices made to appease God and avert His wrath, or were they made to cleanse people from sin? Another Jewish scholar answered:

Neither. Both of your possibilities assume that God is lacking something and requires it of us. The sacrifice was for the one offering it.”(p.106)

The blood of animals does nothing for God. What He wanted was an act of obedience and trust by sacrificing something that cost them dearly (their livelihood in an agrarian culture).

The way the Jewish people looked at animal sacrifice was to remember how exceedingly sinful that sin really is. This agrees with what Paul says about the purpose of the Law (Rom. 7:13). It can never make one righteous, but raising and offering a Lamb without blemish would require great care and sacrifice, which shows the cost of sin to the sinner. When you offered something that cost you, you felt the cost and pain of your sin.

But, as Myers puts it, there was no mystical voodoo going on that the act of the animal sacrifice actually forgives the sin in any way.

I will summarize with one more quote from the book (Bold-type added):

“If we see His sacrifice as an appeasement, to placate God’s wrath, then we are saying something new–something neither the Jews nor the early Christians said. If, on the other hand, we see Christ’s sacrifice as the same kind of sacrifice a loving parent makes for a child, then the sacrifice isn’t Godward–it is instead a selfless act to accomplish something. And the “something,” in this case, is the doing away with sin….He sacrificed for us. Or, as the writer of Hebrews says, ‘He put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself’ (9:23)”  (p.108)

Beloved of God, you can take this however you want. But ask yourself if you’re defending the Bible or the traditions you’ve been taught. I believe we have allowed pagan concepts to filter into our view of Christ’s precious sacrifice on the Cross and it has hurt our view of the Father of Love.

I stand with people like Myers, the Jewish scholars, the early church, and even the Eastern Orthodox church today, on what Christ accomplished on the cross. Christ’s sacrifice was a rescue mission from a loving Father who wants His kids back!

He’s not a mad, mad Dad; He’s a good, good Father. 🙂


About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 37 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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11 Responses to Saving Easter – part six

  1. Lance says:

    Time to write a book of your own about the truth. Wait , God wrote one already. Makes you wonder? Keep it up. We already won. It’s time some folks heard the good news. Yay God.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Amen. It’s a pretty good Book, too. 🙂 We are living from His victory in the Father’s embrace, not fighting for it separated from God like orphans. That will be what my final installment will be about on Easter Sunday. Blessings.

  2. Marylou says:

    Thank you for “Saving Easter” Be encouraged. It has changed my thinking totally, I was taught PSA theory and taught it myself. While I can now clearly see the flaws, I am still trying to get my head fully around all the implications. Bless you for taking up the challenge.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thank you for your encouraging comments, Marylou. It takes time to sort it all out. I still am after several years of study. There are some parts of PSA theory that are good. My main point is that Jesus did not pay an angry deity so that He could be appeased. This idea is pagan to the core. Jesus is our victory over death and darkness, an demonstration of the Father’s unfathomable love! Blessings.

  3. A rescue mission – I like that, Mel. We in the Western world think we have it right, but we forget our perspective is young. We would do well to learn from Middle Eastern scholars who know the original language, culture and intent. Again, thank you for providing church I can grow with and that speaks to my spirit this Resurrection weekend.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks again, Susan. I always appreciate your encouraging words. 🙂 And, yes, we do have a lot to learn from the ancient fathers of the faith. Our foundation of the Christian faith didn’t start with the Reformers; it started with Christ.

      I just finished the final installment for this series, which I will publish early Easter morning. I kind of bring things back into balance, that all positions have something to offer, even though I certainly don’t embrace much of PSA.

      I don’t wish to tear down but build on the foundation of what is good and leave the rest where it belongs, in the the ash heap of history. Of course, we’re always learning more and continuing to find out where we’ve been wrong. That’s the beauty of growing up into Christ! We might as well embrace it; change is here to stay. 🙂 I will also focus on the main reason why Jesus came in the first place. I hope you’re blessed.

  4. bullroarin says:

    A good word Mel.

    “…a Christian invention!” I love it! Even the Jews see the illogical nonsense that the “modern church” has adopted as truth.
    Its funny, and sad in a way, but I’ve always suspected that something was not quite right with the PSA message in the western contemporary church. I just assumed everything being taught was the truth and questioned nothing. Years ago I had a great debate (lasted about two years), with an aerospace engineer living in Florida who was an avowed atheist, about the whole idea of Christianity and religion et-all. We had some lively discussions as you can imagine and I often think back to those days when he had me on the ropes over a lot of the things you are talking about on this form. Not only the Jews see the absurdity in western understanding…but some rational thinking atheists see it too. The sad part of this story is that my friend was a christian at one point in his life and because no one could give him a reasonable answer for the contradictions/conflictions he found in scripture he decided that it was all bunk.
    Of course I would never admit it at the time but I had many of the same questions he was asking and no reasonable answer either…until now.
    So thank you Mel for your diligence and determination…this is truth and something the church has needed to hear for a very long time.

    Blessings ~ Dave

    • Mel Wild says:

      Yup, thinking people don’t buy it. And we’re finding out it’s for a good reason. Here’s a good rule of thumb. Whenever you’re embarrassed by your answer, or it looks different than Jesus, or it contradicts Love, your doctrine probably needs an upgrade. 🙂
      The sad thing about our needing to hear this for a long time is that THIS was the message of the early church for 1,000 years! It was lost but now we’re digging up the ancient wells and finding new life. Thanks Dave, and blessings to you too.

  5. Someone linked to your blog and it somehow got back to me. I am honored that you quoted my book! I’m going to be in Wisconsin the last weekend of May doing an eschatology seminar – I wish I’d connected with you sooner and maybe we could have met. Drop me a line:

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