Longing for the Divine

Propitiation

God is always the subject of propitiation, never it’s object.  

Thomas Torrenace

Years ago, I attended a class at a missionary training school in the heart of Oregon. The Bible teacher wrote the Greek word “hilasterion” on the white board and asked the class what it meant. His next question was whether redemption carries a propitiatory dimension.

Propitiation is one of those big theological words. It means to appease God and satisfy His anger. It reflects the idea of Jesus’ death pacifying the wrath of God against sinners. The word, translated as “atone” (kipper) in Scripture can refer to appeasement, as in Proverbs 16:14:

“A king’s wrath is a messenger of death, but the wise will appease it.”  

NIV

It so happens that those angry with us are just waiting to be appeased. If anything, pagans don’t want the gods angry with them, as their anger can be deadly; offending them requires sacrifices and gifts of appeasement to advert their anger. This thought is conveyed in a few Old Testament passages. In Genesis 32, Jacob, who had cheated his brother Esau and feared a confrontation, prepared an escape by sending many gifts to appease his brother’s anger. Jacob’s appeasement of Esau’s wrathful intent is evident in the huge tribute/bribe he offers—over 550 animals. In Numbers 16, the high priest Aaron runs among the congregation burning incense as a means to evade God’s wrath and stop the deadly plague. In Numbers 25, Phinehas, a faithful priest whose job was to protect the sanctuary, reverses God’s wrath for the Israelites by slaying two people. In 2 Samuel 21, David, the king of Israel, attempts to placate the offended Gibeonites by means of slain bodies hung up before the Lord.

While theologians often link the Old Testament sacrifices and the work of atonement with the notion of propitiation and appeasement, this association comes from a misunderstanding of Israel’s most sacred rite. Dr. Yitzhaq Feder, author of Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual: Origins, Context and Meaning, argues that the propitiatory sense of atonement was replaced by expiation. According to Feder, Biblical writers abandoned verbal forms of appeasement and propitiation, adopting instead a nuance related to bloodguilt (expiation). Despite this early change in Hebrew writings, however, many scholars fail to recognize the transition from the early concept of propitiating or appeasing anger to the new usage of expiating sin. 

The sin offerings and atonement rituals in the ancient Israelite Sanctuary did not propitiate God as if He were an angry judge who needs to be assuaged. The famous New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd proposed that the very idea of propitiation is pagan and foreign to any Biblically acceptable doctrine of God (The Epistle to the Romans, pp. 21–23). If we use the word “propitiation” to denote the sacrifice of Jesus, God is the object, not the subject. The propitiatory action is directed towards God with the purpose of changing His attitude. The idea that God sedated His wrath in the sacrificial death of Jesus should be rejected. Jesus did not die to enable an angry God to love sinners: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son” (John 3:16, NKJV). Since God is both the originator and subject, rather than the recipient of propitiation, the translation that seems more compatible is “expiation.” On this point, Feder is helpful.

Yet, this leaves us wondering why God’s wrath is reported to have occurred at all. Perhaps human evil and the pain it creates prompt God to remove sin to save His people? If God’s desire towards us is love then He must not only oppose all that jeopardizes love, but ultimately deal with all the negative consequences of evil that harms us.

My Bible teacher that day suggested that the answer we give can be determined from the early or primitive contexts of appeasement and plotted into the New Testament. But just because the word can mean propitiate or appease in one context, does not mean that this is the meaning determined here. Jacob’s gift was an attempt to placate the anger of his brother, but what happened on the cross was no such appeasement attempt. When explaining the work of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, we must abandon the arbitrary sense of propitiation in favor of its new definition. If God is the one drawing near and doing the right-making, He is the subject, not the object of propitiation. If God is the one reconciling the world unto Himself, setting aside His displeasure from the self-movement of His love, then He does not need to be assuaged (1 John 4:10).    

Despite support for the proprietary view, the New Testament writers do not support propitiation as appeasement. Instead of focusing on placating a wrathful God with this kind of sacrifice or gift, sacrificial atonement shifts towards cleansing and forgiveness, addressing sin as an object to be removed (1 John 1:7, 9; 2:2). God did for us what we could not do. He took the condemnation for sin. God did not condemn Jesus. God condemned sin in the person of Jesus—who became sin for us (Romans 8:3). It is not Jesus who is the object of God’s wrath, it is sin. The words we use to explain God’s redemption warrant examination. If God’s anger is not the wrath of a capricious deity, then the notion of God’s wrath has been transformed to its current usage. I think that D.E.H Whiteley’s conclusions are unavoidable at this junction:

“… if the notion of the wrath of God has been transformed, the notion of propitiation must be transformed pari passu. The recoil of God against sin must not be quenched, or God will cease to be Holy. God’s hatred against sin can be “propitiated” only by the abolition of sin. Christ deals with sin, not by throwing a cloth over the eyes of God but by setting us, at the cost of his own life, in a relationship within which sin can be done away. The New Testament speaks of Christ as a sacrifice of a transcendent nature. It is a mistake to recognize the transcendence of Christ over the old sacrifices and yet to retain the rationale of the old sacrifices in explaining his work. Christ was a new and living sacrifice, and if we are to explain his work, we must invoke a new and greater theory of sacrifice.”

Whiteley, The Theology of St. Paul, p. 147

In Romans 3:25, Paul uses the biblical term “tabernacle ark cover” or “mercy seat” as an analogy to describe what God did by portraying Jesus as our atonement (hilasterion). The ritual describes how people’s sins were purged on Yom Kippur, as described in Leviticus 16. It’s the word for the place where the cleansing life-blood was displayed to overpower sin’s stain. The two golden cherubim positioned on top of the ark cover endlessly stare down at this place of mercy and power. Propitiation as appeasement fails to fit the context. This was not the place for pacifying God; rather it was the place where God dwelt among His people (Exodus 25:17-22). By invoking the imagery of His blood, Paul uses a more rich allusion to display both God’s atonement for sin and the revelation of His merciful love. As the writer of Hebrews explains, this could be discussed in further detail, but would take too long (Hebrews 9:5). Simply stated, Jesus’ atoning death was God’s means of reconciliation.

Do you see the same old rationale of propitiation, at the heart of Christ’s atonement? Do you think God’s anger was quelled on the cross in the sense of propitiating His anger or do you see expiation and forgiveness—God’s own means of undoing the consequences of sin through the act of His reconciling love?

Craig Ashton Jr.

2 Responses to “Propitiation”

  1. Joy LaMountain

    Good explanation Craig. Some day we will fully understand the depths of Gods and Jesus’ Love. I can’t wait for that day!

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    Reply
    • Craig Ashton Jr.

      Thank you! Yes indeed. With greater clarity we will understand God’s love that came at such an enormous cost to Himself, and the wonderful revelation of that redeeming love will continue to fascinate us in the purity of our perfection.

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      Reply

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