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…”
As 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. 🙂