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 have we misunderstood the cross?
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 appeased 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 amends for us and a non-target for His wrath.
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. It can and has distanced many people from the faith altogether, and quite justifiably.
On the other end, atheist critics raise objections of their own to the idea of propitiation.
In addition to the argument’s use of the modalism heresy to make its point (i.e. the idea that Christ and God are one and the same), 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 before any placating of God’s wrath (Luke 7:48), which of course begs the question of why Jesus had to suffer if He could just as easily forgive sins without enduring the horror of the cross.
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 and questions that are left in the air. If we view propitiation as nothing more than a form of righteoues appeasement then we will only be met with objections and confusion, 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 wicked by stepping between us and God and taking our place. Mercy is seen today as showing compassion on the target of wrath and withholding a punishment that is justly deserved. It doesn’t give anything to the perpetrator. But in the social world of the Bible, the word had a vastly different meaning. Pilch and Malina in their Handbook of Biblical Social Values render mercy as giving aid to those who have no means to save themselves.
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.
In the context of the atonement, this would come in the form of justifying a world that had done nothing, and could do nothing, to deserve it. The heart of mercy is the establishment of a covenant, or a promise, to those who have no means to enter into it on their own (Romans 3:10). This is the promise that all will be saved into everlasting life, for Scripture states He will show mercy to all (Romans 11:32). Paul notes in that exact verse how it is God who has locked everyone up in stubborness and disobediance. Such a truth could not be justified if, because of divine stubborness, they were to be cast into condemnation for eternity.
Jesus ended our separation from God-signified by the tearing of the veil in two-by suffering shame, separation from His Father, and death by the weight of sin. In return He has saved us, justified us, and made peace with us through His blood that was shed. This is not made effective by any work of our own, for if it were it would not be grace (Romans 11:6).
As opposed to the common view of atonement, Jesus and God were not conflicted in their goals. The scenario is not of Christ wanting to save and God wanting to destroy. Christ did not step in to stop His father from punishing sinners, neither did He become a substitute for us (just as a patron is not a substitute for his client).
In truth, Christ is not a victim of wrath but the saviour of humanity. A force of love from God to us. Not one born into morality but one born of God. Dealing not with the sinners who rejected Him, but with the sin that drove us all away from God in the beginning. The work of the cross is not merely the forgiveness of the old name, it is the creation of a new name altogether. It is the name of the risen Christ and we, by faith, walk in it today as His body (1 Corinthians 12:27).
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20 NIV).