For most of my life, I’ve been taught that Christ’s death was necessary because of God’s wrath for humankind. A perfect, holy God simply cannot tolerate sinful human beings. So the story goes.
The theological term is propitiation. It refers to the appeasement of a wrathful deity who requires sacrifice in order to achieve right relationship. And to be sure, there is a place for taking concrete action to reconcile a damaged relationship. But I wonder if we’ve got something dreadfully wrong about God’s character when we start talking about God’s need for a perfect sacrifice to satisfy his bloodlust.
A month or two ago, Justin Taylor wrote about propitiation and its centrality in a particular version of the Gospel. Quoting J.I. Packer:
A gospel without propitiation at is heart is another gospel than that which Paul preached.
But is it possible that Paul’s audience, steeped in the traditions of paganism and the tragic misconceptions of Hellenistic Judaism, simply needed to hear Paul talk about it that way? What if we have completely misconstrued God’s character? What if, as John’s Gospel teaches, God is love? Taylor goes on to quote John Murray:
The doctrine of propitiation is precisely this: that God loved the objects of His wrath (the world) so much that He gave His own Son to the end that He by His blood should make provision for the removal of His wrath.
Many of my non-Christian or post-Christian friends find divine bloodlust one of the most troubling aspects of the Christian faith. Is the God of the universe really so petty that He finds it necessary to cosmically zap the human beings He created in His own image? Is God so vindictive as to require this?
It seems to me that we’ve misplaced our emphasis, particularly in the American Evangelical subculture. The institutions of sacrifice and law (e.g., keeping the Sabbath), while divinely instituted, were given as a temporary teacher until the perfection of Christ arrived (Galatians 3:23-25).
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
Paul’s gospel is clear. Not only is Christ the perfect fulfillment of the divine law, but Christ is also the one through whom we receive justification by faith. Before his death and resurrection, Jesus was already proclaiming the forgiveness of sins.
So why did Jesus have to die?
Perhaps it has more to do with us than with God.
Maybe Jesus’ death has more to do with our own human need for visible action steps. Jesus’ death was significant. The crucifixion reminds us of the call to lay down our lives for our friends. The willingness of God, in Christ, to suffer death on a cross should remind us all that God didn’t hold us at an arm’s length. God became one of us and suffered for our sakes, so that we could become more like Him.
Maybe Jesus’ death is a reflection of the failings of human law to match up with divine will. Jesus was accused of being a blasphemer, a rabble rouser, and a seditious threat to Rome’s imperial power. Because Jesus exploded the categories of the legal and political authorities of his day, he was made to suffer a horrible death. By the legal standards of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish religious court), Jesus was a blasphemer who threatened the Temple, claimed to be able to forgive sins (without sacrifice!), and claimed to be the Messiah. By the standards of the Roman authorities, Pilate said he could find no specific wrongdoing, but still allowed Jesus to be handed over to the mob.
The doctrine of propitiatory atonement is certainly part of the biblical narrative. But the analogies to Jewish atonement laws serve more as illustrations and not as a central theological tenet. God is “rich in mercy,” longsuffering and good (Romans 2:4), and it is the law that leads to wrath (Romans 4:15). It is a grave mistake to see legalism and wrath at the heart of God’s character. And when we put our focus on our own good works, instead of God’s goodness and mercy, we remain under a curse (Galatians 3:1-10).
When, instead of law, wrath, and works, we focus on being filled with the Spirit of God’s love, miracles happen (cf. Galatians 3:5). Those who focus on the external works of the law, like the Judaizers in Galatia, continue to divide and deny our spiritual unity in Christ (Galatians 3:28-29). This is the core message of the Gospel: that Christ died for the ungodly while we were still dead in our transgressions, and that we are saved by grace and not through the works-righteousness of the law.
So, what do you choose? Do you choose to continue believing in a wrathful, punitive, petty deity who demands propitiatory sacrifice to appease his hurt feelings? Or do you believe in a God who is Love personified and who showed us a better righteousness apart from the law? Do you believe Jesus had to die because of God? Or was it because of our human inability to comprehend the divine love that is fully revealed in Jesus Christ?
Wrath is reserved for those who live by the law, and who hold others to the rigid standards of sinless perfection. The measure we use to judge others will be used to judge us (Romans 2:1-3). There is a better way, exemplified in God’s generous, gracious, merciful character and embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.